Networking During Covid-19
By Lynn Tanner
While we are all continually reminded how important networking is to our careers and business development, the reality is that the Covid-19 pandemic simply does not allow us to use traditional methods to network because activities such as attending in-person networking events and meeting face-to-face for coffees and dinners are on hold for now.
Does this mean that your networking efforts can be (or need to be) put “on hold”? The answer is a resounding no.
Not only are there many ways that you can keep up your networking efforts (discussed in further detail below), but there is an argument to be made that this may be the most important time during your career to not only make sure you keep networking, but to also increase your networking efforts.
If your initial reaction to that statement is “That’s ridiculous – I’ll look like an insensitive jerk if I’m peddling for business while the world is falling apart,” you would be correct.
However, it’s important to remember that networking, at its core, is not about peddling for business; it’s about building and nurturing relationships, and the fact is that relationships are often greatly changed during periods of stress because of the intense emotional reactions that people experience. This means that actions that would normally not be deemed to be particularly significant are felt far more deeply (and remembered for much longer) than they usually would be.
The reality is that everyone is struggling with the effects of increased stress at this point, whether due to the direct effects of Covid-19, increased responsibilities, fear of economic loss, general anxiety and uncertainty, restlessness, isolation or just a general sense of chaos (essentially, what we’ve come to refer to as “Covid Stress”). Therefore, how we behave during this period (including the taking or not taking of seemingly insignificant actions, such as sending a text or making a phone call) may have lasting impacts because how we make people feel will likely impact our relationships significantly going forward (whether positively or negatively).
The good news (assuming there is such a thing at this point) is that in some respects, we actually have more opportunities to network than we would normally. Although this sounds counterintuitive, the reality is that we’re dealing with a situation that no one has experienced before and, as such, the usual “rules of engagement” no longer apply and we can interact with people in ways we haven’t previously (without it seeming particularly awkward or forced). For example, today, it’s absolutely fine to reach out to someone just to find out how they are, or to try new methods of social interaction methods that we would never have done under normal circumstances.
A Word of Caution
Because everyone is living with some level of Covid Stress and we don’t necessarily know what people are going through or how they’re coping, we need to change the tone of our everyday interactions and focus on being more sensitive, kind, genuine and patient.
For example, consider foregoing the customary greeting of “how are you - hope all is well.” If the person you’re reaching out to is in a bad place physically, emotionally, financially or otherwise, this seemingly innocuous greeting is going to make them feel even more disconnected. Instead, consider using a more gentle and open-ended greeting, such as “thinking about you – how are you holding up?”
Also, consider increasing your patience with people generally. For example, if you experience unexplained changes in someone’s levels of responsiveness or communication (whether it’s delayed responsiveness, non-responsiveness or hyper-responsive one day, followed by days of non-responsiveness), keep in mind that it likely has nothing to do with you and instead results from changes in their own circumstances. It is fine to follow up (in moderation), but try to make sure you do so in a manner that is patient and empathetic (and, of course, non-aggressive).
Finally, consider sharing personal stories with your contacts more than you normally would. Not only will this help you establish a more personal connection with them, it may also help them feel a bit less isolated. For example, it’s easy for someone to believe that everyone around them has not only managed to fulfill their normal duties effortlessly, but has also spent the last several weeks getting in shape, learning new languages and perfecting their cooking skills, while they’ve been struggling just to make it through each day in one piece. Therefore, they might find it reassuring to hear that someone else is also having a difficult time balancing a full-time job, homeschooling, childcare, parent care, etc., and/or has just about had it with daily scavenger hunts for toilet paper.
Taking Care of Your Current Relationships
Check in on your Contacts: Reach out to your regular contacts to check in on them and offer support, even if you haven’t spoken to them for a while. Keep in mind that you don’t have to have a call to talk about work if you don’t want to; personal calls can make lasting impressions.
Video Calls: Try to schedule some one-on-one video calls, as they tend to be better than phone calls for making the interaction more personal (which is particularly helpful during this period of isolation). However, try to be mindful of people’s reluctance to appear on video or participate in a large number of video calls. For some, it’s a new experience that they may not be entirely comfortable with; others may simply be “worn out” with continuing requests for video calls (which admittedly be a bit exhausting).
However, assuming people are open to video calls, there are a myriad of platform options available for you to use, including the following.
- Google Hangouts
- Go to Meeting
- Face Time
- Cisco Webex Meetings
- ezTalks Meetings
- Google Duo
- Microsoft Teams
- FreeConference (for large audiences)
If you’re new to the technology, try working through calls on a couple of different platforms with a friend before you schedule a video call with a professional contact, and be prepared to help some of your contacts with the technology. (The good news is that if you help your contact learn the technology and they are then able to use it with others, you’ll have done a double amount of good for them.)
Giving is Key. The most important thing you can do at this point is to find ways to help the people in your network, whether personally or professionally (and if you can do this without charge, all the better). Try to prioritize personal contacts with clients (and find out what they’re concerned about and how you can help them) over producing client alerts (which now appear to be outnumbering New York City pigeons).
Sometimes people know what they need and are happy to tell you. If that’s the case, focus on making sure you address their requests promptly, and keep them informed of your progress (just as you would normally).
Others may say that they don’t need anything. In that case, it’s important to check back in with them regularly, because they may think of something they need after your call, or, because the world is changing so quickly, they may experience a change in circumstances that leads them to need something a week or so after your call, but, for whatever reason, don’t reach out to you to request your help.
Finally, others may have no idea what they need. In that case, it may be helpful to provide them with some thoughts as to what you may be able to do for them. Some ideas include:
- Make a connection for them;
- Refer a deal to them;
- Create personalized checklists and other information tools for them;
- Summarize and personalize information on a particular topic for them;
- Nominate them for an award;
- Provide them with a reference or testimonial;
- Co-author an article with them, or quote them in an article you are publishing;
- Host a networking group and include them in a member spotlight;
- Host virtual conference (or mini-conference) and include them as a panelist;
- Help them navigate Zoom and other useful work-from-home technology;
- Review existing transactions for them;
- Help them develop policies for future transactions.
Finally, don’t forget about people who may have lost their jobs; they need your help more than anyone and will appreciate whatever you are able to do for them during this period.
Create Virtual Social Activities: This may sound a little strange, but please keep reading. Given that we can’t get together for dinners or drinks or golf outings, most of our “live” interactions consist of work-related webinars and video calls, or “virtual happy hours” that inevitably end in awkward silences or are interrupted by confused family members wondering why we are drinking wine in front of the computer screen.
However, it turns out that adding some structure to virtual social activities actually makes them far less awkward (and yes, admittedly, even quite a bit of fun). Start out by inviting contacts that you’re generally comfortable with to your first few events, and then expand your audience (including by asking your participants to “bring” their own guests). Some ideas include the following:
- Virtual Dinners: Have dinner delivered to each participant and have them share stories about this cuisine (e.g., the time dad thought the wasabi was guacamole and put a large bite of it into his mouth).
- Pet Club: Each participant introduces their pets to the group and shares stories about their furry friends.
- Wine Tasting: Do a bit of research; have a few wines delivered to each participant; give them some background on what they’re drinking and ask them to share their opinions.
- Family Time: Each participant introduces their spouse and children to the group; then each member of the family shares an interesting story or special talent with the group.
- Vacation Planning: While we’re all dreaming of our next vacation, have each participant tell a story about their favorite vacation to inspire some post-Covid travel plans. Bonus points for anyone that brings photos.
- Casino Night: Need we say more?
- Craft Night: Share supplies with each participant and make something together.Bonus points if you agree to donate your creations.
- Karaoke Night: Have drinks delivered, chat for a while and then have the participants turn their living rooms into a Karaoke bar.Require a two-song minimum and set up a participation order to avoid awkward silences. Consider including awards for “worst performance” to reduce the anxiety levels of participants who are not “natural performers.”
- Cooking Club: Have ingredients for a meal delivered to each participant and cook the meal together. Be sure that at least one terrible cook with a good sense of humor is included in the group.
- Short Story Club: It’s kind of like a book club, but designed for folks that can’t possibly include the reading of an additional book to their schedule.
- Movie Night: Turn out the lights and watch a movie together (uh, separately, but together).
- Personality Quiz Night: Have everyone take a personality quiz (Myer-Briggs or otherwise); have the participants guess each other’s personality type and then have each participant reveal their answer.
Once you get the idea, you can adapt it to (almost) any activity. (Really, give it a chance - you just might end up having fun!)
Expanding Your Network
Up Your Social Media Game: For obvious reasons, social media is more important than ever, with most people reporting significantly increased use over the last several weeks. To make sure you are not missing out, here are some things you may want to try:
- Update your LinkedIn Profile: Make sure it includes the content you want others to see.Add keywords, photos, videos, professional experiences and publications.
- New Posts: Post new content whenever you can. Original materials are great, but if you don’t have original materials in-hand, share posts from others.Make sure to include a sentence or two of your own content, tag people and add hashtags and links where relevant.
- Interact with Others: Read, like and comment on the posts of others.If you read something particularly relevant or important, consider sending a separate message and starting a conversation from there.
- Reach Out to New People: This is the time to take a chance and reach out to new people on LinkedIn. If you include a thoughtful note, you might just be surprised by the response you get.
Take Your Virtual Presence to the Next Level:
- Host a Webinar: Pick a topic and a colleague (and/or a client from your network) and host a 30-60 minute webinar on a current topic. Try to include some interactive activities to determine interest levels in various topics and be sure to let participants know about your upcoming webinars and ways for them to contact you. After the webinar, you can share the video of the webinar with others, both as a convenience to participants and as a way of attracting new viewers to your next event.
- Host a Virtual Conference: Virtual conferences are much easier to organize than in-person events and many well-known speakers are now available. Consider organizing either a speaker series or a full-day or half-day conference that can include some of the topics that would have otherwise been covered by in-person events during this period.
- Join a business networking group or a networking platform, such as LinkedIn, Udyomitra or Xing and actively participate in it.
Ask your Contacts for Introductions: If there’s someone you’d like to meet, ask your connections to introduce you. (There’s nothing new about this, but your connections may be happier than usual to introduce you to new people.)
In these uncertain times, the idea of networking may seem daunting or inappropriate, but if you approach your contacts as relationships and treat them with kindness, gentleness, sincerity and good intentions, networking during this period may be one of the greatest investments you make in your career. Good luck!