The art and nuance of networking

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By John S.

As a species, we have been forced to adapt in many ways over the past year. Whether it be through “masking up” to venture to grocery stores, virtual happy hours with coworkers and friends, or even creating, manufacturing and distributing multiple vaccines to help turn the tide against the virus, we have shown great resilience in the face of adversity. 

As we’ve done so, there have been some valuable lessons that have made themselves apparent as it pertains to networking. When the pandemic forced major changes in the ways we interact, it shone a light on these three points:

1. The value of face time (and no, not the Apple version!)

As our interactions became virtual, many of my friends, colleagues, and even family made the same proclamation: “Zoom is great, but it just doesn’t replace in-person interaction.” The feeling of hugging a friend, shaking a hand, or seeing someone in-person for the first time in what feels like forever are hard to replicate through a glass screen in your hand or a laptop on your thighs. "Zoom Fatigue" also became a common part of the lexicon. 

While life continues to become more normal and we return to our gyms, restaurants, and offices, some of us are even meeting coworkers that we’ve worked with for months, but have never met in-person. This very situation occurred to me a week ago, and the coworker in discussion (as a relatively new hire) was excited at the prospect of meeting coworkers for the first time. Not having met in-person limited her ability to form connections with the team and caused her to miss out on informal learning that comes from observation. While I do subscribe to the adage “never say never,” I do believe we’re some way off from truly replicating the in-person experience virtually. 

2. Initiative, initiative, initiative

The Nike mantra of "just do it" doesn’t simply apply to sports and sneakers. When networking - whether it be for a job, entry into a university, or to try and find a new mentor to help you on your journey - remember that you will never reach your goal if you do not take initiative and get the ball rolling.

A friend of mine was going through his reapplication process for a top graduate school. He had applied a year earlier and been denied, however after retaking his entry exam and scoring a good amount higher, he decided to reapply. He joined a call that included Admissions Directors from some of the top schools in his field of study towards the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown and found himself with a choice after hearing the representative from his target school speak on the call. 

What she had said had spoken to him, but he was unsure if it would be appropriate to reach out to continue their conversation. After getting advice from his close friends on the matter, he ended up sending an email. The Admissions Director responded: “Can we schedule a call in two days?” 

Thinking that she would walk him through the reapplication, he obliged. When the time came and the call started, he was in shock to hear her offer him admission for the following school year. His excitement could not be contained over the next few days - all of this because he took initiative and built a new connection with the Admissions Director. 

3. The value of the check-in

One of the greatest impacts the pandemic had was on our collective mental health. The thing I have valued most that the firm I have been working for has encouraged our colleagues to do, is to care for each other’s collective health. There are few gestures that build a sense of trust more than reaching out and asking: “Are you okay? I’m here to listen and help if you need.” During the pandemic, friends and coworkers have poured out their hearts to me and I’ve leaned on them as well - this not only helps maintain our community’s health, it strengthens our bonds. 

While you may want to say, “John, some of these aren’t tips for networking, they’re tips for maintaining relationships with friends,” I challenge you to rethink the lines between networking and fostering strong bonds. As some companies move away from “work-life balance” and towards “work-life integration” as a healthier strategy, to think of our networking strategies in any manner other than building trustworthy friendships is a way of thinking that’s expiring soon.