The world of business as we once knew it changed overnight in early 2020 when the pandemic forced many companies to pivot to a remote work model. I had just moved to the Bay Area temporarily to be closer to our network and three weeks in, that adventure ended!
But, as things begin to open up, the time has come for employees to dust off their professional attire and work their way back into the networking game to regain the in-person connections we lost—while continuing to foster connections virtually. Of course, that’s easier said than done, Think about it for a minute—how did you network in the past year? Did you use zoom? Did it work? Did it ever feel normal? Now think about the few steps you’ve taken toward doing some in-person connections—did you pick it right back up? Or has it felt a little exhausting?
We’re having to flex some muscles we haven’t used in awhile—the ability to walk across a room, make eye contact for a few minutes, watch for in-person nonverbal queues, ask questions and keep the conversation going. And like most workplaces, we’re still doing this in a hybrid fashion—not everyone is fully comfortable getting back out there in a room full of strangers, and that is perfectly okay. The transition is not meant to happen overnight and there are still ways to successfully connect that are not in-person.
To network moving forward, whether in-person or virtually, it’s important that people understand how the challenges of the past year and a half changed the world of networking, but also brush up on the skills that have probably gathered some dust. Whether face-to-face or virtually, here are five tips to get started on the path to success:
Ignore the stigma associated with networking
Commit to changing your mindset around networking. Don’t consider it a job, but an opportunity to meet new people and learn their stories. Do you know how many interesting people are out there? This is your chance to find them. Get excited about the prospect of that. And while networking isn’t necessarily expanding your social circle as it relates to personal relationships, try to view it in a new light. Networking isn’t about gathering in a conference room with sad carpet to hand out your business cards. It’s about making friends with people who just so happen to have the same professional interests as you.
Don’t force it
It’s important to make new connections to help increase your network, but it’s 100% okay not to click with someone who you initially thought you would have. Many people feel the need to force a connection, but if it doesn’t feel right, simply move on. There are plenty of other people in the world who are just as successful in similar roles.
It’s a two-way street
While you might be leveraging your network to move forward in your career, you should also make sure you’re offering support in return. Ask your network how you can be helpful. Networking is a balance of giving vs. getting and personally, I like to offer two “gives” for every one “ask.” Is there an introduction you could make for them? Content they could be featured in at your company? Promoting something they’ve posted on LinkedIn? Reciprocate the support you receive. This shows you are actively engaged and are not just connected with them to better yourself.
Prepare as best you can
It seems like a no-brainer, but if you can, make sure you know who you are speaking to and the company they are representing. In some cases, this will be tough, especially if it’s a large event, but do your best. Take a few extra minutes to brush up on industry trends or recent industry news. Come with a list of a few questions you can turn to if you need a conversation starter or if the conversation is not flowing as easily as you were thinking, It’ll help the conversation flow and remember, it is always better to be over prepared than to scramble to make conversation. I’ve always found it helpful to go into an event with an idea of how many people you want to connect with. Set a goal—is it one new person, two, 10? Once you’ve hit that number, you can get out of there or keep on going, but it gives you something to work towards. Oh, and guess what, it’s ok to not just talk about work and business! People love talking about themselves. Ask them where they went to college or where their first post-pandemic trip was.
Engage your existing network
While it might be exciting to think about the next opportunity coming from someone you’re just on the cusp of meeting, it’s also essential to engage and connect with your existing network. Once you have connections in your circle, create a plan on how often you will engage with them to foster an even stronger connection. You can’t expect to reach out to someone once every six months with a new ask of them every time. Comment on their latest LinkedIn article or a job promotion post, offer to buy them a cup of coffee or send along a handwritten note (in lieu of an email) just to say hello.
As we continue to network in a hybrid world, remember to focus on quality vs. quantity, understand your “why” for building your network and most importantly, be yourself. Don’t put on a show with the hopes of impressing the person you’re talking to because I bet they see through it. A few years back, my manager got me a sign for my desk that says, “Authenticity is magnetic.” I truly believe that when going into anything, it’s important to show that you’re human because guess what, you’re talking to other humans!
When you’re ready, feel empowered to take networking by storm, whether in-person or virtually and follow the above five steps to better align yourself for success in this post pandemic networking world.
(A bonus tip: Be patient with yourself. We haven’t done this for awhile, and it’s hard to get back out there. It’s going to feel awkward at first—embrace it and try to remember, everyone else is feeling it, too.)
Casey Renner is a partner at OpenView, an expansion stage venture capital firm. She leads the end-to-end strategy & programming for OpenView’s network of industry experts, advisors & corporate partners. Her role is focused on creating connections between founders and their teams and the partners, advisors, board members, and events they need to reach their goals.