How to find the time to get your (net)work done

Article by Dr Anne ter Wal and, Dr Michelle Rogan, Imperial College Business School

networking event, name badge and coffee, networkThe pandemic has been a challenge for all of us in so many ways.

With home schooling duties, adapting to digital modes of working, and concerns to stay fit and healthy, it is an uphill battle to just get our work done. Putting the effort into keeping our network alive and in good shape whilst we’re restricted from mixing with friends and colleagues may not be a primary concern. But, in a recent webinar we hosted for Imperial College Business School’s Executive Education Department, we argued that it should be.

Our networks affect our well-being and our job effectiveness in many subtle, yet important ways. A spontaneous conversation with a parent of your child’s classmates may unexpectedly spark a solution to a problem you’ve grappled with at work. A heartfelt “thank you” from a former classmate to whom you sent an article of interest may simply brighten up you day.  Or, a friend you have helped with polishing a job application a while back may refer you to an important prospective client. On the face of it these are small, even symbolic networking actions, but they add up to create an invaluable resource – in both expected and unexpected ways.

The pandemic is putting our social capital at risk of decay. Not only do we miss out on the more spontaneous forms of interaction that are such a natural, and most of the time, enjoyable part of our working day, many of us also seem to struggle to put time aside to cast a wider web. Going from one zoom call to the next means our interactions have become dictated by our work schedules and by the immediate demands that are on the forefront of our minds. We keep the essential interactions going but are losing out on the more open-ended conversations that can surprise and delight. Ask yourself, when did you last talk to the colleague from the other department you spoke to regularly before COVID-19?

Without an immediate reason to interact, for example because you are not directly working with someone, it is easy to simply forget and get on with the daily grind of juggling virtual work demands and the reality of caring responsibilities. Somehow, it seems that the time we have gained by saving on commuting has simply evaporated.

And this is a significant problem for our professional development and our productivity. Those spontaneous exchanges and interactions that happen between colleagues in the office – perhaps whilst grabbing a coffee in the break room, passing in corridors, or by the infamous water cooler – can bring unanticipated benefits, sparking inspiration and prompting exploration.

So, what is the solution? In our webinar, we offered some simple solutions. The first step to effective networking is to recognize that it doesn’t need to take much time at all. Often, being overwhelmed by work, we tend to prioritize our own tasks over finding the time and mental space to do something meaningful for others. Yet forwarding an article that could be of interest to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while doesn’t cost much time at all, but can revive the relationship in a meaningful way. A 15-minute virtual coffee with the colleague from the other department is not too much to ask, but can possibly spark new insights and ideas beyond the immediate demands of daily work.

The challenge is not simply one of time, but of the cognitive energy required to plan these actions into the day. One way to do this is to tie your networking time to another part of your daily routine. We all have moments of the day where we are a little less productive. Think of the after-lunch dip, or the time you inevitably spend mindlessly scrolling through social media content. Why not make it a habit to use those “off-times” each day to make one or two small but meaningful network actions  to help others?

The second step is to shift your mindset about networking, from seeing it as a cost to a benefit. Our connections to others are a valuable resource that can help us access expert knowledge, find solutions to problems, or simply provide support. Think about the last time that you were facing a challenge at work; perhaps you needed to get up to speed on a new technology or learn about a new industry. Rather than spending hours reading internet content or wading through the help files for a new app, try a new approach. If your internet search does not provide the answer you need or address the challenge within thirty minutes (or one hour, depending on the challenge), write a message to two or three people in your network asking for their help. The information they share could save you hours of time searching for the solution to the challenge. And, if you are worried about appearing incompetent by seeking advice, don’t. Research shows that those who seek advice from others are actually perceived as being more competent.

Being helpful for others not only makes us feel better, it will also help prevent the relationships beyond our immediate circle of closest colleagues and friends from decay. And, further down the line, remaining present in the minds of others will undoubtedly bring both anticipated and unanticipated returns that are the subtle, yet oh so important merits of effective networking. If anything, habitually making small but meaningful investments in maintaining our networks keeps the relationships we care about in a good enough shape that we feel comfortable reaching out for help whenever we need to do. I In the long run, maintaining a rich and varied network of people you can reach out for input and advice will not cost you time, but rather save you time, in helping to solve problems and challenges you’d previously have struggled to solve alone in an efficient and effective manner.

About the authors

Dr Anne ter Wal, Associate Professor of Technology & Innovation Management at Imperial College Business School, and lecturer on the Idea to Innovation Executive Education programme.

And, Dr Michelle Rogan, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at Imperial College Business School.

The webinar; “Is Coronavirus Destroying Your Network?” is available to watch on the Imperial College Business School website

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