The art of virtual networking

Mingling is harder in a socially-distanced world, but if you're adaptable you can still make connections.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

This has not been a good year for schmoozing. 

Even now that lockdown has eased, you’ve got to admit that business lunches don’t have quite the same appeal when you’ve got to remain at least a metre apart at all times, and both of you are scared to touch the cutlery. And as yet there isn’t a Zoom function that fully replicates the awkward but often fruitful chats over lukewarm coffee that you get at a good industry conference. 

As a result, the coronavirus pandemic has put an end to many of the usual methods many of us rely on to develop our network.

This is problematic because networking is not just important for career progression, finding new work and sparking ideas, it’s also good for our mental health. At a time when anxiety levels are increased, and some are facing the prospect of unwanted careers change, it is more important than ever to ensure you stay well-connected. 

The good news is that networking is still perfectly possible in a socially-distanced world. We just need to be flexible in how we approach it.

The world is your virtual oyster

According to Google Trends analysis by the business intelligence firm Informa, web searches for virtual webinars have increased by as much as 20 per cent in some countries, and if our inboxes are anything to go by, supply is more than keeping up with demand. 

“Before COVID there were lots of events that I would have liked to attend that I couldn’t,” says Portia Hickey, a chartered psychologist, associate of The Moller Institute and co-founder of Thrive Matters. 

The ease, convenience and, let’s face it, the price mean that there are many more options available to you, and you can find yourself crossing paths with people you would never have met in normal circumstances. Hickey is particularly keen on events that break attendees into smaller virtual discussion groups: “They take out all of the social anxiety that comes with face to face events.” 

It doesn’t have to be Zoom

Penny Pullan, author Virtual Leadership, says that if anything the problem with online events is separating the wheat from the chaff. Her advice is to choose events that have a clear purpose aligned with your interests. It’s about preparation - just because you can attend a remote drinks session every night, doesn’t mean you should.

Indeed, it’s important to recognise that virtual events just aren't everyone’s cup of tea. With Zoom fatigue prevalent, the last thing that you want is more video calls, says speaker, author and trainer Caspar Craven. He describes the experience of 30 strangers’ faces buzzing around his screen at Zoom-based networking events as frankly uncomfortable.

He’s also yet to be convinced by the scattergun ‘connect-by-social-media’ approach to networking that he has seen some take throughout the pandemic. 

Craven’s approach has instead been to focus on quality over quantity, and in particular to reconnect with his existing network. Since the lockdown began Craven has sent 100 handwritten notes (along with copies of his new book) to trusted and past contacts. 

“I realised that I probably already know everyone that I need to know in order to start my new business,” he says.

Go back to basics

Whatever works for you, it’s important not to forget the cardinal rules of networking. “It’s about building relationships - and relationships are not one way streets,” writes Gary Burniston, the CEO of US consulting firm Korn Ferry. 

By all means think hard and clear about what you want to gain, but also think about what you can offer the other person in return. 

Again, this is something that the pandemic can actually help with. The shared experience of having the world turned upside down, with all the anxiety that’s brought, can actually make it easier to connect with people on an emotional level, says Hickey. 

“It’s really important to hone your listening skills. What are people talking about? What do they want? If you work hard on your interpersonal skills you can build significant emotional connections online.”

Image credit: Robert Szaniszló/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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