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Networking in a Virtual World

Remember when networking meant gathering in a crowded room, wearing a nametag, exchanging business cards, shaking hands, and talking with lots of people — usually with a buffet and wine bar?

Think again. Traditional networking has been as upended as everything else by the pandemic. 

Although some large, in-person conferences are being scheduled for 2022, the coronavirus forced a switch to virtual networking that could change forever how professionals meet others to connect and advance their careers.

“Some people call this the golden hour of networking. Because we’ve become socially isolated and haven’t had opportunities to meet face to face…people really want to connect with others. They’re finding ways to do it creatively,” says Brad Kirkman, the General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership at Jenkins.

Clubhouse, a meet-up space online, is one example. The platform, an audio-only app, allows people to meet others by visiting different “rooms,” where participants raise their hands to speak. “People find it to be a really interesting way of networking,” Kirkman says. 

The solitude of remote work caused by the pandemic has changed not only how but why many people want to network. 

“Making authentic connections on a deeper level is the new way to think about networking. It’s more about finding ways to help people and give to people, and then the reverse will occur naturally,” Kirkman says.

The Poole College of Management Career Center helps MBA students succeed at virtual networking through resources on building a digital presence, developing virtual connections, and creating a brand and LinkedIn profile.   

Social media is essentially a requirement for networking now. With LinkedIn, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, Twitter and other platforms, virtual networking makes it easier to increase connections by tapping into other people’s networks. 

“If you’re not on those platforms, you’re missing out on what can occur,” Kirkman notes. 

Virtual networking has its downsides. One is common — Zoom fatigue.  

“Zoom can be draining,” Kirkman says.

A researcher he knows has found that camera-on Zoom meetings cause more stress, which leads to less engagement, especially for women and employees new to an organization. 

Zoom fatigue or not, virtual networking has do’s and don’ts.

Kirkman offers these tips:

  • Be authentic. “Make it more relational than transactional,” he says. “‘How can I help you?’ should be the first question.” 
  • Update LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. Make sure these accounts and other platforms are up to date, professional and eye-catching. Online resources offer guidance on content and aesthetics. 
  • Stand out. consider using connection tools such as sending a handwritten thank-you note, small gift or link to a relevant article after a meeting. “It seems counterintuitive in a virtual setting, but it’s a way to bring back some of the personal connection,” Kirkman says. 
  • Meet regularly. To replace annual, in-person business conferences and other events, many groups host virtual monthly meetups. Find trade organizations and industry leaders, and attend their meetups. 
  • Get coffee. Taking a walk with someone used to be a networking option. “Take some of the things we used to do face to face and recreate them virtually,” Kirkman says. Some people now share coffee and a walk digitally in different locations. 

Virtual networking calls attention to some don’ts, too. Here’s Kirkman’s guidance: 

  • Forget email. “Sending someone an email is the worst form of networking. People ignore email,” he says.  
  • Attire matters. “Keep it professional. Know your audience,” Kirkman notes. 
  • Make it personal but not too personal. “There are questions that can be a little intrusive,” he says. “Ask more open-ended questions rather than, ‘Has anybody in your family had covid-19?’”

 In the future, hybrid networking — as with university classes around the country — will become the norm in higher education and other fields. In-person U.S. conferences will have international participants who attend virtually.

Pandemic-type challenges and other issues “will be different from country to country at different times, so we’ll need hybrid options,” Kirkman says. “You can’t do just face to face anymore because you would exclude half your attendees,” he notes. “The hybrid model gives people the opportunity to experience networking in the format that works best for them at any given time.” 

This post was originally published in Jenkins MBA News.