I scan the room, looking for people I know and for people I can meet for the first time. I walk up to the coffee urn, where someone I don’t know just filled her cup. After extending a hand, I introduce myself and ask her what brought her here today. Soon, I excuse myself to respond to a longtime colleague who just tapped my shoulder. We exchange hugs and “how-are-you?” responses. I introduce him to my new acquaintance and share a little about each person to help build their connection.
Do you remember those pre-pandemic days of networking and connecting in person? They seemed so straightforward, events that flowed with ease.
I loved those in-person meetings, often in bustling rooms with folks packed in, unencumbered by six feet of distancing or masks covering faces or a computer screen and cyberspace in between us. Because this close-up and often tactile contact has vanished from the working world, networking has changed. While there are still many opportunities today to meet people and help each other with work needs, we can’t escape the differences from the pre-pandemic world. How can we acknowledge these distinctions and make the most of them?
For me, two main differences emerged in my networking over the past two years.
First, most of our networking now occurs through our computer screens. This medium presents challenges. In a large group virtual meeting, it isn’t possible to grab someone for a quick introductory chat—at the coffee urn or after the main meeting concludes. That sense of spontaneity, crucial to connecting, has vanished with handshakes.
Second, many professionals still work exclusively from home. With the elimination of “water-cooler,” hallway, or coffee room chat, it is too easy to seclude ourselves in our home offices, collective noses to the computer screens, in-person connection a much less accessible experience.
Networking just feels harder to me, and I’ve been putting a lot of thought to my approach in this new year. Here are some things I resolve to work on.
Spreading my wings. I will continue to seek out opportunities to join virtual events in the L&D and consulting worlds. There are so many fabulous professional groups in the Boston area, and some meetings that used to be difficult for my schedule now fit in more easily since I don’t need to travel to the meeting. Notably, since everything is virtual, we all can participate in events around the country or even the globe. I’m not saying I’ll join every group there is—I will still select from those that provide me the most benefit—but there are more options now.
Reaching out. When in a virtual meeting with a group, if I notice someone with whom I’d like to have a longer discussion, I will message or email them to get the ball rolling, then set up a time for a separate, one-to-one conversation if it seems appropriate. It doesn’t really take more time to do that than it did in person, but it does take a different way of thinking, which might feel like it requires more effort at first.
Carving out the time. It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day flow of work without leaving time for connection. This challenge hasn’t changed all that much. To address it, I schedule a little time in my calendar each week for networking activities such as selecting, registering for, and attending events; following up with people post-event; and meeting one-to-one. I keep in mind something I learned a long time ago: Networking is one of those things to do before you need to do it. The network is invaluable when seeking information about a professional question or a job or gig lead.
As I resolve this year to make more new acquaintances and reconnect with longtime colleagues, I will continue to offer support, resources, and connection to those I meet. As I learned early in my career, networking isn’t just accessing information, it is also being a reliable and trusted source for the rest of my network. A professional network can develop into a circle of advice and support, and I aim to contribute to my place in the circle.
I look forward to connecting with you in 2022. If you don’t hear from me soon, I welcome your reaching out to set up a time to chat.