Now we have reached “Freedom Day”, the general consensus seems to be that, whilst we can now can go back to our pre-covid working lives, we should do so with caution – consider the necessity of our travel and whether our physical presence in the office is still necessary for our roles.
And, though many would wholeheartedly back that approach, we face a dilemma. Whilst organisations were quick to adapt to evolve their practices so that business could keep going when workforces were separated, there are still many elements of our professional lives that cannot be replicated as effectively online. Networking, for example, is one of those necessary ingredients for our professional development that thrives, at least partially, on real human interaction.
Over the past eighteen months we’ve all become adept at joining video meetings (and angling our cameras in the right way!), attending virtual events and scouring LinkedIn which has, thankfully, enabled us to keep one foot in the outside world whilst confined to our homes. However, we’ve also all too often felt the dreaded “Zoom Fatigue” that comes with endless digital interactions. But should we so readily return to “business as normal”?
As well as the ongoing public health concerns, which we all must be aware of for the foreseeable future, the question we should be asking ourselves is whether there are benefits to digital networking that we should endeavour to keep hold of.
A benefit of living digitally for so long, is that we now have the opportunity to audit our new networking patterns and cherry-pick the best bits to complement our pre-covid practices and create a much better set of tools for ourselves when it comes to building our professional networks.
But where to begin? As we inch our way back into the physical world, there are three rules for networking that all professionals should bear in mind.
Though we know that diversity can encourage broader thinking, innovation and fresh approaches in our workplaces, we often forget it can have the same impact on our own personal professional development. Unfortunately, we humans are naturally inclined to engage with those who are most like us and, at a time when we’ve prioritised only the most necessary relationships, many have spent little time trying to branch out.
For those who find it socially awkward to contact an unknown person out of the blue and attempt to strike up a conversation, eighteen months of relying on digital communications has seriously hampered their outreach. Pre-covid we could seek to shake up our networks by deliberately placing ourselves in environments where we would be face-to-face with new people and perspectives. Enrolling on executive education courses for example, offers the chance not only to boost skills and knowledge but also to meet and work with a wide variety of professionals whose differing experiences, ideas and perspectives only add to the experience.
Whilst such programmes have continued in a digital format, for those who have not yet had the opportunity to join such institutions, the lack of opportunity to connect with those outside of our usual scope can be addressed by joining “diverse-closed” communities. In the pre-covid worlds, these were typically invite-only groups, for example dinner clubs, or running groups, that unite people with varied interests and backgrounds with the intention of fostering strong bonds among them. During the pandemic, many of these communities have gone digital and joining them provided a similar function by helping members reach more people – and more different people – further afield.
And there’s no need for such groups to be disbanded once normal life resumes. In fact, continuing to contribute to them provides the opportunity to reap the benefits without disrupting the working day.
After living behind our screens for so long, we’ve become accustomed to booking in timeslots for conversations, meetings and appointments. Our professional lives have been ruled by our diaries and, without a physical workplace gathering people together, there’s been little to no opportunity for unplanned exchanges – a spur-of-the-moment chat with a team-member or bumping into a colleague in the corridor. Beyond the niceties exchanged, it’s these meetings that often provide unexpected benefits. Snippets of information shared off-the-cuff between departments in these moments can often sow the seeds for an innovative solution or for learning about career opportunities.
If your interactions during lockdown have been limited to family and immediate work colleagues as discussed above, now is the time to make a conscious effort to interact with people outside of that narrow world by taking advantage of opportunities for spontaneous interaction. Such interactions shake up our thinking, help us see things differently, and such opportunities must be encouraged – particularly as we transition back into normal working life. Importantly, these interactions will yield the greatest benefits if they occur through individual activities, such as a running club or interest group, rather than firm-sponsored events. Nurturing ties in our individual networks, the professional and social ties that we form regardless of our current jobs, is important to maintaining the foundation of relationship that fuel are innovative insights.
It’s hardly surprising that, with restrictions easing, organisers are keen to get in-person events and meetings back up and running. Venues in London, for example, have reported a 294% increase in event enquiries and bookings. We may find ourselves on the receiving end of a deluge of invitations to lunches, drinks and other events. In an effort to make up for lost time and re-affirm those long-missed connections, it would be very easy to fall into a trap of “over networking” – committing ourselves to everything offered to us.
Whilst eagerness and spontaneity are to be encouraged, there is a balance to be found. Social butterflies don’t necessarily make the best networkers, as they often find themselves agreeing to everything, spreading themselves too thin and underdelivering as a result.
Relationships must be nurtured, which takes time. The best relationships are built on trust, which can only be established if you are able to keep your promises. The key here is to keep in control. Assess every opportunity that comes your way, ask yourself what it’s value would be for you professionally and do not be afraid to decline an offer.
If you can accomplish this you can become a real asset, both within your organisation and outside of it.
About the author
Dr Michelle Rogan is Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Academic Director of the MSc in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Management at Imperial College Business School.
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