When we networked prior to the COVID19 pandemic, we primarily did so in person. Whether it was to attend our local and state bar networking happy hour mixers or flying across the country to attend annual conferences and events, we did so in person. We also networked, however, during the pandemic. In fact, we wanted to connect even more while we were locked down because we craved human connection. As anxiety levels rose, clients, colleagues, friends and family all wanted the reassurance that a phone call connection could provide. So, we emailed, texted and telephoned our connections and networked virtually.
With in-person meetings on hiatus we were forced to switch to videoconferencing to remain connected. Since there was no need to commute to the meeting location, there were no geographical boundaries. Online networking meetings allowed us to interact and socialize with people we might never have met in “real life.” However, at the same time, even online one-on-one meetings seemed a bit unreal and often impersonal. Yes, we made it work, as in some cases we had no choice with statewide shutdowns. Still, we missed the informality, camaraderie and casualness of in-person meetings and wanted to network and connect perhaps even more than when things were “normal.”
Although we could still attend conferences and seminars virtually, the inability to really see in person the people involved made networking difficult. Often, we signed up for conferences to read or listen to the material later, even when breakout rooms were available. We wanted to stay connected, but sometimes it was much easier to turn off the camera feature and just listen.
Networking is about relationship building. It is a powerful tool to make friends, find clients, create collegial collaborations and build referral relationships. Being social beings, even for introverts, all these goals are more easily achieved in person because it is easier to find out about someone else when you can not only listen to them but can also observe and learn about them from their body language.
However, as we begin to emerge from pandemic strictures, not only should we think about returning to in-person networking activities, we should also keep and enhance some of the networking skills we acquired during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s face it, living and working after the pandemic is different. We can’t go back in time and revert to “business as usual.” Life has changed. Many of our values have changed. Companies and law firms are accommodating the “new normal” by creating hybrid work schedules and allowing for the flexibility of remote work. With all these changes, we can’t go back to our old way of networking. So, how should we network in this new environment? What should we change and what should we keep as we emerge out of the pandemic?
Networking strictly online. In 2020, because of governmental shutdowns and recommendations, most of us had to network strictly online. Networking is essential for both personal and professional growth. Unfortunately, it was not an “essential business” and we had to cease all in-person networking events. Granted, it may be a little scary to venture back into the social scene of in-person networking now that those restrictions are lifted, but let’s face it, Zoom fatigue is real. Rather than scheduling one more virtual coffee meeting, consider meeting in person. However, before scheduling an in-person networking event or meeting, be sure to ask whether your guests are ready to go to a restaurant or a coffee shop. If they are, ask if they would prefer to sit outside or inside.
As an alternative to meeting at a restaurant for happy hour or dinner, you might want to consider going for a walk and talk. Bring sandwiches and eat them while you walk in a park or grab a cup of coffee or tea and window shop in a mall. This will allow for additional public interaction while remaining socially distant from others. Whatever you do is secondary to the in-person connection.
Now that you have decided to resume meeting in person, the question becomes: Should you greet the other person with a hug, handshake or elbow bump? If you are meeting a good friend or close connection, you might go for a hug. If this is the first in-person activity with an online networking connection, you should ask what kind of greeting is comfortable for them. Being triple vaccinated, we hug now or shake hands, but perhaps the other person may be more cautious and would rather exchange a fist or elbow bump. Since you want the event to be comfortable for both parties, you probably should go with the most cautious preference.
Communicating only via emails and text or instant messages. Again, prior to the pandemic, sending an email was the standard method of written communication and, depending on the nature of the relationship, we also may have sent messages on LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram. For the most part, we had already stopped sending printed letters or notes via the postal service, as going green or paperless was in vogue. Although there is nothing wrong with communicating electronically, it can be rather impersonal, despite the growing use of emojis. Granted, email marketing tools can be very useful when done correctly. However, we need to get back to some traditional forms of communication.
Therefore, after a year of interacting with clients and colleagues solely in a virtual space, perhaps you want to signal a willingness to be more personal by sending a handwritten note. Your approach to sending a handwritten note can be similar to a phone call—casually asking how the other person is doing. Alternatively, you could send an invitation to get together or a greeting card to remember an anniversary or birthday.
Just imagine if you sent a potential client a “save the date” postcard for a meeting, as opposed to an Outlook calendar invite.
Similarly, if you are connecting via mail with a client or a prospective client, you might want to enclose an article or reference a blog post that refers to a conversation you had with the person online. Use the handwritten note to remind the person of its relevance to your prior conversation.
As a reminder, handwritten notes are naturally more personal. The thought and time that goes into writing a note and mailing it is far more personal than drafting and sending an email. And more importantly, 90 percent of people who receive a handwritten letter will open and read it. By comparison, Mailchimp found that only 17 percent of their marketing emails are opened on average.
Infrequent interactions. When it comes to networking, the key is to interact consistently. A marketing rule of thumb says that it takes eight to 12 connections during a year to move from the initial introduction to a relationship. Make a list of the most important connections you made online during the pandemic, as well as post-pandemic, and create a plan how you will connect with them in person or by sending them something of interest every six to eight weeks.
Whether you are 100 percent working back in the office, still remote or in a hybrid office working environment, consistent, visible interactions are essential. When working remotely, you want to participate effectively and professionally via Zoom even if others are sitting together in a conference room. It is important to work with your boss or team leader to develop communication protocols that level the playing field between virtual and in-the-room participation. You do not want to be out of mind when out of physical sight. Set up times to talk informally on the phone with coworkers, team members and your boss to stay connected.
Losing your networking focus. While in COVID-19 lockdown, we tended to network with our closest friends and colleagues. Let’s face it, it is easier to “like” or share a post of an existing connection than to reach out to someone with whom you are not already connected. We also selected online networking meetings because they fit our schedule. As we return to office-oriented work schedules, review your networking goals and select in-person groups, meetings and one-on-ones that further those goals. Remember that a niche focus makes it easier to understand and become part of your target market.
Go where they go. Do what they do. Use networking opportunities to deepen relationships, gain knowledge, connect with referrers and take advantage of visibility opportunities.
Capitalize on your interest in new hobbies and family activities. One of the pluses of the pandemic lockdown was a renewed interest in family togetherness and fun. Keep those activities. If you took up mindfulness techniques or exercise or jigsaw puzzles, find others who like these, too. Do not lose your new hobbies; transition these hobbies to in-person networking opportunities.
Seek out events and create opportunities that resonate with a social cause that you are passionate about or an activity that sparks joy. Actively participate in person, whether it’s a charity golf event or volunteering at an Earth Day beach cleanup. Not only does this give you a chance to perfect your elevator speech with new friends, it also provides another opportunity to continue engaging in the work/life balance activities you began in 2020.
Keep using LinkedIn. During 2020, LinkedIn became a way of learning more about online acquaintances. Participating in LinkedIn groups became a way of getting to know people. Reading articles and blog posts on LinkedIn kept us informed about issues of interest. I do not know about you, but during the worldwide shutdown, I started using LinkedIn more to stay current on trends within the legal profession, as well as to connect with individuals whom I interacted with during webinars and other online events. So, don’t stop!
Continue actively using LinkedIn as you return to in-person events. Use LinkedIn to find people you want to meet. However, make sure your profile is up to date before you meet with people. Increase your visibility by sharing your own articles and blog posts with your LinkedIn connections. Learn how to use hashtags correctly to expand your online presence. There are several good books and articles on how to use LinkedIn and other social media platforms to expand your professional network and grow your practice.
Returning to in-person networking does not mean abandoning virtual networking. It means integrating your activities so that your in-person and virtual worlds blend seamlessly. It’s all about the new normal—creating networking opportunities that are a combination of the best of pre- and post-pandemic networking. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us many things, and when it comes to networking, it’s not about social distancing.