Business magnate Elon Musk is known for leading the way. From online payments to electric cars, Musk is often ahead of the curve. In February, he demonstrated his business savvy once more when he excelled at networking in a remote world. Using his Twitter account, which has 46.7 million followers, Musk sent a tweet to the Russian President Vladimir Putin and asked if he would like to join him for a conversation on the social networking app Clubhouse. Musk received an immediate reply from the Kremlin, stating the president was “interested”.
Musk proved that in a post-COVID world, the business landscape has clearly changed. No longer can you organise face-to-face meetings, enjoy afterwork drinks with clients or gossip with your team members around the watercooler. It looks as if it will remain this way for some time. Twitter and San Francisco-based Square said their staff can work from home forever and a US survey by Enterprise Technology Research of chief information officers found the number of remote workers will double by the end of 2021.
But the need to remain connected is imperative, says UK business psychologist Felicity Lee of Response Ability. “Human beings are social animals and we need connection to survive and thrive,” she explains. “Networking fulfils in us three core needs: it gives us a feeling of belonging; it provides us with insight and influence with others; and it also provides community of support and mutual trust.”
No matter where you are on the leadership ladder, the ability to network well, establish rapport quickly, and build and maintain relationships is key to personal and professional success. In the post-pandemic world, networking matters more than ever.
Networking in a virtual office
Decision-making meetings, status updates and problem-solving sessions are still scheduled, but instead of gathering in an office, people are now working in a Zoom or Webex room and their colleagues may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.
However, San Francisco-based Eat Just chief executive Josh Tetrick warns that companies don’t need to organise too many meetings to ensure teams stay connected. “We probably overdid it at the beginning. I had this feeling that I’m not around someone, so I need to talk to them all the time,” he says.
Tetrick created trust among the remote team by creating consistency. “We have developed a good rhythm of checking in, depending on whether it’s a team meeting or company-wide meeting,” he adds. “Having the consistency of knowing when you are all going to get together has also been really important.”
While a tight agenda may mean staff want to get straight down to business, to be a successful networker those watercooler-style conversations need to stay. Conversation in the real world does not only revolve around professional topics and the same should hold true for communication online, says business coach Caroline Vernon of Intoo. She says: “Get to know your contacts and discover what you have in common outside work. Show them they matter to you as more than just a resource.”
The easiest way to do this is to log on five minutes before the virtual meeting is scheduled to start. You can chat without holding up proceedings and at the same time build rapport. But remember to say how much you enjoyed this pre-meeting catch-up before you log off. It may encourage other team members to log on early for the next meeting. This connection will create trust in the team and you will have more colleagues who will help or support you when you are faced with challenges. It will also stop people from feeling isolated and starting to look for other jobs.
When you are networking over a computer screen, you also need to think about how you get your message across. In a remote world, you need to take advantage of every chance possible to make a connection. This means you need to shrug off your Zoom fatigue and remind everyone why they need you on their project or board. Executive coach Austin Iuliano says there is an easy shortcut to raising your energy levels. “Look at the camera and imagine your best friend is across the room. Naturally, you will lift your voice and project your energy to meet them,” he explains.
While you can’t attend face-to-face networking events, you can network and make connections within your company, whether that’s your London, New York or Hong Kong office. If you want to get ahead, Erdin Beshimov, senior executive at MIT, says you should surround yourself with talented people. “Ask yourself who are the people in your field that are doing excellent work and will be stars ten, twenty or thirty years from now and how you can help them excel even more,” he says.
Building cross-industry contacts
While large scale industry networking events might have ground to a halt, companies are creating innovative ways for their staff to learn from other people and companies in their sector. Brandon Spears, co-owner of US marketing agency DoubleXDigital, is encouraging his team to start podcasts. “Nobody likes being asked ‘Can I pick your brain?’, but podcasting gives you the excuse to interview and build a relationship with people you want to meet,” says Spears. “This one strategy, when done right, will change your network for ever.”
There might not be any wine-and-cheese evenings where you can hand out your business card, but you can still search for industry events that are happening virtually. Whether it is in a Zoom room or Clubhouse, you can still stay abreast of events and connected. Although if you do intend to join, make sure you treat it as more than a fact-finding mission.
Networking expert Megan Bozzuto says you should prepare a virtual elevator pitch you can paste into the chatbox. “Include one piece of contact information – LinkedIn, website or email – and think about how you can draw attention to encourage the connection,” she says. This allows you to continue the conversation beyond that one event.
If you are out of practice at flexing your networking muscle after a year of living in lockdown, executive coach Pat Roque suggests a virtual three-way coffee will help you get back on track. “Reconnect with an old friend, colleague or mentor and introduce them to someone they’d enjoy meeting,” says Roque. “This process can create amazing momentum to support an upcoming launch or help job seekers navigate their career pivot.”
Don’t wait until those lockdowns have lifted. Continue to nurture the relationships you do have and begin to build others. Who knows what opportunities are out there and ready to be discovered?