It was inevitable: the scent of coffee permeating the apartment always reminded him of the fate of unrequited social connection….
For many of us, networking in the time of COVID-19 has taken a back-seat to adjusting to the “new normal” of balancing social distancing with maintaining an adequate level of productivity and motivation. The banal activities of sitting down with friends at the cafeteria or stopping in a colleague’s doorway to hear about their weekend escapades have been replaced with eating in front of your computer while scrolling your Facebook news feed to find a pleasant reminder of past social engagements.
Networking was always something that we could do with relatively little effort throughout our daily routine. This new situation has placed a perceived barrier between ourselves and others, but I am writing to you today to reassure you that networking truly is possible during this current global health pandemic. It is in all of our best interest to continue to engage in the process of networking as a way to not only maintain a sense of “normalcy”, but to also allow us to develop professionally and achieve our developmental goals.
Maintain your existing network of relationships
One of the important things to remember about networking that is most relevant to social distancing is that building your network is about building relationships. This is one of the key topics I mentioned during an ACS Webinar on “Professional Development that Makes a Difference” (1). Relationships are built on mutually beneficial, and reciprocated, exchanges of information and support. Gary Burnison, CEO of KornFerry, is often quoted echoing this saying, “if you want to be successful at networking, you must keep in mind that it really isn’t about you. It’s about building relationships—and relationships aren’t one-way streets.” (2).
To build and maintain these relationships, we need to think about providing not just tangible business-related support, but also social and mental support to those in our network. Kelly Hoey, a networking expert and author on the subject, encourages us to “rather than wondering about what you should be posting online or how often, focus exclusively on how you can be of service during this unprecedented time”. (3)
This works for not just your mentors and former colleagues, but for all your stakeholders including clients and collaborators. Reaching out in this way is “not a sales call, it’s a goodwill call. They will remember it later,” says Karen Wickre, former Director at Twitter and author of Taking the Work Out of Networking: Your Guide to Making Connections That Count. (4) “This is the time to use LinkedIn to thank your internship boss; to find your first-grade teacher on Facebook and tell them the impact you made”, says Molly Beck, author or “Reach Out: The Simple Strategy You Need to Expand Your Network and Increase Your Influence.” (3)
Spend time analyzing and building your personal brand
Your personal brand can be one of the most effective ways for you to network as it’s something that is working for you even when you’re not actively thinking about it. Building a strong personal brand that speaks for you through your various social media platforms can help you differentiate from others while job-seeking as well as signal to others how you may be able to help them in their own development goals. (5)
There are some great ACS Webinars on how to improve your personal brand and how to use social media in the process (6, 7), but we are sometimes blind to the messages that others receive based on our personal brand. Stephanie Eberle, Executive Director and Assistant Dean of Stanford University’s BioSci Careers community, proposes an excellent experiment to help you understand the messages your personal brand transmits by asking a trusted colleague to “Google” you and report back on their findings so that you can use that information to either reinforce, or reinvent, your personal brand accordingly. (5)
Metacommunication is another component to your personal brand that provides people listening to your speak some cues and clues about who you. The components of metacommunication can be used to create powerful presentations for scientists, and these components can be learned and implemented through practice. (8) While safely working from home, a nice piece of advice provided by writer Theo Melrose is to set a networking goal of improving your public speaking by setting up a Zoom call with a trusted friend watching you speak or give a speech so that they can provide you constructive feedback to help you continue to build confidence and build your personal brand. (9)
Expand your network authentically and with purpose
In addition to catching up with old acquaintances and virtual “self grooming”, the idea of expanding your network is another aspect of networking that can be done effectively while still maintaining safe social distances and working from home. Analyzing your existing network to identify allies and long-time colleagues to reinforce your network often will result in you identifying gaps, or holes, in your network in relation to your professional development goals. (10) Taking time to then reach out to new potential contacts can help you fill those gaps, meet new allies/supporters, and reach your goals even quicker.
Identifying new potential contacts is as easy as scrolling through your social media newsfeed. While working from home, plan to spend 5-30 minutes a day while your eating a meal, having a coffee break, or having some mental downtime to see what people are sharing or creating on social media. (5) This can serve as inspiration for things to learn, activities to try, or people to engage with. Writing a personal message in an email or connection request can go a long way in starting off a new networking relationship in an authentic way. (10)
Some people may find reaching out to new people to be intimidating regardless of whether it is the first time or the fiftieth time. Rosina Racioppi, CEO of Women Unlimited, observes that many people, especially (but not only) women, decide not to approach someone whose work they admire—by sending a request to connect on LinkedIn, for example—out of fear of rejection, or simply from a reluctance to impose on the other person’s time and attention. (4) But if you send a request with a thoughtful note, ideally one that briefly asks for advice on a specific business issue or situation “most people are receptive,” says Racioppi. “Never assume a no.”
I can personally attest to the effectiveness of this approach as I was the recipient of a very thoughtful and sincere direct message networking session while I was scrolling through LinkedIn last month. I was in the middle of following up on some potential leads related to an analytics study that I was running for some ACS Divisional communications where I was looking at different public profiles when all of a sudden I received a direct message from one of the individuals who’s profile I had just viewed. A young woman kindly greeted me, asked me how I was doing, and if she could help me. I told her what I was doing and she then quickly pivoted to asking me for questions about professional development related to my career progression. It was a short, yet pleasant interaction, and we ended the conversation both having expanded our network and learning a little more about the power of well-intentioned networking. Looking back on this interaction, I am very proud of this young woman’s courage to reach out to me in the way that she did and I am looking forward to staying in touch to learn how her development progresses.
With all of the new demands on our time, it is often easy to neglect the critical (and for some enjoyable) act of networking. Compound that with an onslaught of news coming from the news media and our social media sources that often highlight negative messages and narratives, it is often difficult to maintain the mindset necessary for networking, yet I encourage you to follow the advice of Theo Melrose to “remember to keep a positive attitude, it’s one of the top characteristics of a great networker.” (9) This type of approach is infectious and can help you as you continue to broaden your network and develop your skills in a the time of COVID-19 and beyond.
About the Author: Matt Grandbois is a Strategic Market Manager for DuPont Electronic & Imaging where he leads the portfolio management of the worlds leading supplier of chemistries and technologies for manufacturing of electronic devices. Matt is a world-recognized advocate for the professional development of chemists and has been a featured speaker on the ACS Webinars series numerous times where he has spoken on topics ranging from “Networking that Makes a Difference: Communication Skills, Networking, and Time Management”, “Metacommunication: Conveying Passion and Engaging Others”, and “Networking without Saying a Word: Silent but Deadly”. He is an active volunteer leader within the American Chemical Society where he sits on the executive leadership boards for the Division of Professional Development, Division of Business Development & Management, and the Central Massachusetts Local Section.
- Networking that Makes a Difference: Communication Skills, Networking, and Time Management. Matthew Grandbois. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/acs-webinars/professional-development/pro-difference.html
- Networking in the Age of COVID-19. https://www.kornferry.com/insights/articles/job-networking-search-coronavirus
- How to Network while Social Distancing. Elana Gross. https://www.forbes.com/sites/elanagross/2020/04/01/how-to-network-while-social-distancing/#39064586212a
- 4 Ways to Keep Networking while social distancing. Anne Fisher. https://fortune.com/2020/03/25/coronavirus-social-distancing-networking-career-advice-jobs-covid-19/
- At-Home Networking Strategies. Stephanie K. Eberle. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/23/how-network-while-you-are-social-distancing-home-opinion
- Building a Positive Online Personal Brand: Using LinkedIn, Blogs, and Other Social Media Tools. Lauren Celano. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/acs-webinars/professional-development/building-brand.html
- Social Media 102: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Blogs. Jennifer Maclachlan. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/acs-webinars/professional-development/social-102.html
- Metacommunication: Conveying Passion and Engaging Others. Matt Grandbois https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/acs-webinars/professional-development/metacomm.html
- Networking During Social Distancing. Theo Melrose. https://thriveglobal.com/stories/networking-during-social-distancing/
- Networking Without Saying a Single Word: Silent but Deadly. Matt Grandbois https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/acs-webinars/professional-development/silent.html