How to Network in a Pandemic

Networking is much easier in person. Conferences, dinner, parties, team get togethers, coffee meetings, random people in unexpected places, the opportunity to meet new people is just so much more effective if it involves a physical interaction.

But now that the option to meet in real life is severely limited, what will that mean for networking?

If you think about how it usually works, it’s natural to start a new connection in person. You meet someone in real life maybe at a conference or party, you connect online, you stay connected even if it’s just scanning a feed for their updates and one day you might see them again in real life.

Now this routine is all shaken up because our ability to make that initial step in real life is all but gone and the only way to meet new people is to start online. Even those of us who are introverts are likely to be worried. How will this work when so many of our go-to networking norms are gone? We could simply replace a coffee with a zoom call but how do you get that far in the first place? Cold call messaging on Linkedin? Responding to a Facebook friend suggestion? Those seem like low return methods of finding new people and a long way from the experience in person.

As the rate of unemployment grows day by day and the need to network becomes ever more pressing, the ability to network to land your next gig is more important than ever. Social distancing and self isolation has not only caused the impact, it’s also hampering us from doing much about it.

There are few platforms that make it easy to meet new people online. Linkedin and Facebook are designed for people you already know. One of the few networks getting more traffic is Nextdoor which inevitably has seen a surge of usage as people are stuck at home, sharing information at a local level on where to buy toilet paper or facemasks. The way we internet is changing and it’s going to change more as the impacts of COVID-19 create a new normal.

But there are ways that people are being introduced to new people in an almost accidental way –  zoom calls that friends have arranged where they have invited other friends. Whether on purpose or just through a lack of time, calls are being arranged where friends of friends are appearing on video and it’s kind of working.

Not for the the first time, I’ve found myself introducing myself like it’s a work call except there is no need to be formal. Like being at a wedding and meeting the other guests at the dinner table, most of the introduction involves explaining how you know the host possibly involving a slightly embarrassing (to the host) story. The host might be rapidly regretting the call in the first minute but if this is the only way to meet new people then so be it, the choices are limited and we can usually trust that the fact that our friends have decent friends.  This is something which we are starting to think about more especially in the workplace. Here is some advice on networking for work – How to become better at work while working remotely or How to network while you are social distancing that includes the suggestion to up your zoom calls with new connections –  ‘Over the next two weeks, reach out to 10 people, inviting them for a Zoom/phone conversation or coffee/lunch post-COVID.’ This could work well for those of us with already established networks but for those people who are looking to grow a new network or expand on their existing one, it’s going to be tough to reach out to strangers and expect them to accept a call.

What if there were other ways to network online? Maybe new ways born out of the new pandemic restrictions.

The key could be by focusing on the introductions you get through your friends or colleagues. What if we could design a platform laser focused on that one problem? In this platform the user would ask for a specific type of person they were looking for, someone who has knowledge of or has experience of something and the system would find out through your friends (or people interested in the topic) who has suggestions. If they don’t know they can pass it on to other people they know who may be able to put a name in the frame. If there’s a match, you get some kind of reward or just the warm feeling that you did something good. In addition to a passive like, you get to raise your hand and say you might know someone. How the connection is made needs to be mindful of privacy and dependent on the inclination of the suggested person but at least that little gesture ‘I think I know someone’ is captured online in that moment. Even if only a few people connect and that leads to a new job or opportunity, or we just stave off a little of our loneliness, if we can help a friend find the person they need to meet, it just could be worth it.

Whatever the solution, it will pay to start looking in depth at this problem. It was always a problem online but now it’s a much bigger problem and it’s only going to become a lot worse. Networking in the age of Corona will be a challenge for everyone. For work, socializing, finding help, just about any situation where you’d meet people in real life – it’s all changing but it’s also ready for some innovation.

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