Working from home has become a reality for a lot of us over the past two years. While there have been advantages to that – goodbye lengthy commutes – some aspects of work have become more difficult from home and networking is one of them.
Networking is integral to a career, whether you’re seeking a job or are happily employed. It can be as simple as stopping by a colleague’s desk or buying coffee for a prospective employer. It can also mean putting on your best business wear and showing up to a flashy drinks event.
The small talk and chance meetings that occur through these events are the essence of networking. They offer a chance to build contacts and strengthen relationships that could lead to a better place both socially and professionally. You never know where a chance encounter could take you, and that’s the joy of it.
With office interactions and in-person events basically off the cards for the foreseeable future and more businesses transitioning to permanent or hybrid work from home situations, it’s increasingly difficult to find the networking opportunities of old.
Thankfully, we have technology, which has opened doors to things like Zoom events and socialising apps.
Just like with any in-person social event, there is an art to networking from home that many of us are still figuring out. To help make sense of this, we asked some experts for their tips on how to survive the online world of networking.
What options for online networking are there?
While in-person networking opportunities are scarce at the moment, there’s no shortage of ways to connect with people online.
Since the onset of the pandemic, meetings have become video calls and Friday beers at the pub with colleagues have transitioned into Zoom drinks.
We’ve found ways to adapt and the same goes for networking.
Take Bumble for instance, which expanded its dating app into a networking platform for business. Bumble Bizz uses the same process as the dating portion of the app, but focuses on allowing people to connect professionally.
Lucille McCart, APAC Communications Director at Bumble, explained over email:
“Across the world, there are hundreds and thousands of successful business connections that have been formed on Bizz. These people have overcome the discomfort of virtual business networking and made the first move.
“People on Bumble Bizz connect for a wide variety of reasons – whether they are looking for a mentor (or to become a mentor), to unearth collaboration opportunities, or to simply expand their network and meet new people with shared interests.”
Larger networking sessions that would have once been held in auditoriums or at bars have also transitioned into Zoom seminars and live feeds. You only have to check your Facebook feed or subscribe to an organisation’s newsletter to find an abundance of industry events to attend.
But it’s what you do when you (remotely) arrive at these events that makes a difference.
How to start building a professional connection remotely
When it comes to networking from home, a lot of the normal rules of conversation apply.
Holly Lyons is a script producer and expert at networking. She’s helped facilitate a plethora of events for the film and television industries, and has even run courses on the subject of networking.
Lyons says one of the most important parts of networking is simply having the guts to reach out and do it, whether it’s via video chat, an email or a message on social media.
“Strike up a conversation, even if it’s hard and you’re filled with social anxiety,” she said.
Once you do that, your first topic should not be to ask for a job, particularly in times like these when opportunities are already limited.
“Avoid saying what you really want. If your goal is to get a job, find something else to talk about first,” Lyons said, “even if it seems shallow like asking what to watch in lockdown.
“[Lockdown] is not the right time to ask for a job, but it is the perfect time to establish a relationship. You want to put yourself in their orbit. You might want to ask for their advice or pick their brains about their career path.”
McCart also said being direct about your interests in your initial conversations can help lead to a better connection.
“I always am much more open to connecting with someone if they give a short intro of who they are, and explain why they are interested in connecting with me. If you give someone an understanding of what you hope to achieve by connecting, it’s more likely to lead to positive outcomes, such as a virtual coffee catch-up.”
From there, the differences between traditional and remote networking become more apparent.
The pros and cons of networking at home
To avoid Zoom burnout, Lyons suggested scheduling your networking events and catch-ups on days you know you won’t be sitting in on video calls all day.
McCart also pointed out that being stuck at home doesn’t mean people have more time on their hands.
“People feel mentally fatigued and just as busy as they were before the lockdown. If you are looking to make a connection with someone on Bumble Bizz, or even through LinkedIn or at a virtual networking event, be respectful of their time.”
This is true for both yourself and the people you’re trying to connect with. Sometimes it’s just as hard to get the conversation going as it is to respond to it and that takes motivation.
“The hardest part of lockdown is motivating yourself. As a freelance writer, my mantra was always say yes to everything, so maybe you need a lockdown resolution,” Lyons said.
“Say every week you’ll catch up with someone, maybe an old friend or maybe someone from your industry. I think people are very receptive in lockdown and you’ll get a lot of yeses if you put yourself out there.”
The flip side of these new networking styles, paired with working from home, is that online events are so much easier to attend. We may not be able to travel anywhere, but we can still travel via Zoom.
“I’ve gone to so many more panels in the last year than I ever have before. I live quite far from the city, so it’s normally a pain to travel for a short talk. That’s where lockdown has helped a lot,” Lyons said.
“It’s also made us more international then ever before and has given us the opportunity to attend events that we never would’ve been able to.”
Lockdowns don’t last forever, so we may as well take advantage of it while we can.
What not to do when networking online
Another challenge that comes with online networking is making yourself memorable in a sea of digital names and faces (beyond just having an exciting Zoom background, that is).
While it may seem like you have to fight for attention on a crowded Zoom call, that’s not always the best solution.
“There’s always an alpha person who has to know more than the experts. Perhaps they’re not asking a question but making a statement, or they always bring it back to themselves. Don’t be that person.” Lyons said. “Be mindful you are not the most important person in the room.”
As a host of many online gatherings herself, Lyons said nothing irked her more than seeing participants turn off their video feed.
“If I have a workshop and 50% of the participants have their video turned off, I’ll think they’re off cooking dinner or that they’re not actually here. If you’re not here, don’t be here. I feel like turning off your video is that level of disconnect,” she said.
Eating, answering the phone and dialling in from bed are also things that you should probably avoid during your online calls.
Social etiquette is changing with the digital times and the same goes for networking online.
Remember to go easy on yourself
Lastly, it’s important to remember that, networking is hard and it can be even harder in lockdown.
Online networking just might not be for you, and that’s ok. There are still other things you can do to help advance your professional networks.
“If you don’t have the energy for networking in lockdown, spend time updating your resume or Bizz or LinkedIn profile instead. That way, when lockdown lifts you’ll be ready to get back into things at full speed!” McCart said.
It’s also important to find the fun in networking and to not just treat it as a chore. As Lyons explained, networking can lead to so many different things.
“Networking is really just part of your social life. It’s not just about your job, it’s about what you’re giving back as well,” she said.
Regardless of whether you prefer networking online or in-person, you’ll no doubt have to do it at some point. Hopefully, some of these tips have made it a little easier as we navigate this strange new hybrid world of work.