We are all working remotely. There’s an onslaught of change, new work habits, and “coworkers.” We are inundated by content about COVID-19 that leaves us worried and overwhelmed.
Take a breath.
When we are distancing ourselves in a way we have never done before, it is more important than ever to stay connected to the people who matter most in your life–your network–and to be willing to connect with them digitally in a strategic way.
As Eric Schurenberg, CEO of Mansueto Ventures (which owns Fast Company and Inc.), shared in a letter published earlier: “It’s disorienting, for sure, but we are getting on with it. There is a lot of work to be done.” The people in our lives are integral to everything we do. Having a plan helps to drive one’s meaningful activities, such as building and executing a digital networking strategy in a remote-work world.
An increased sense of isolation just adds to the layers of complexity that result from nearly all of us now operating in a remote-work world. A networking strategy is a deliberate and methodical approach to relationship building that enables us to prioritize our most important ones, focus on the quality over the quantity of our connections, engage in networking activities in an authentic and reciprocal way, and link our relationship-building activities to our overarching strategic goals. Time and energy are both limited commodities, so having a networking strategy just makes sense.
Before the pandemic, many of us felt isolated from one another, for a variety of reasons, from the overuse of technology and unrealistic expectations that we must “always be on” to respond to work inquiries, to the gross overscheduling of our calendars. Now, as we exist in locations in which shelter-in-place rules are in effect and social distancing (which is really just physical distancing) is required, we must all up our strategic networking game.
The good news is that if we can manage to interweave conference calls with story time and freeze-dance-style movement breaks with work deliverables, building and executing our digital networking strategies should be a piece of cake.
In order to be creative in designing and implementing our new digital networking strategy, consider a mix of the following tactics that collectively will keep networking strong, meaningful, and productive during this time.
- Determine your networking goals and then figure out how you can accomplish them digitally. For example, maybe you have a goal to do more public speaking, and you have a friend who is experienced in this area and would be willing to have a Zoom call with you to talk about how to be a successful speaker.
- Decide what your baseline tactical approach will be. Will you set up one weekly recurring happy hour with three to five of your closest friends? Will you schedule virtual coffees with certain key people? Will you spend time each week thinking about people you know whom you can introduce to one another?
- Text the most critical people in your phone contact list a simple message of “How are you holding up? I am thinking of you. What do you need? How can I help?”
- Arrange a virtual movie night where you reach out to several people and all arrange to watch the same movie one night at the same time. Start a text chain so you can “talk” during the movie.
- Look at your calendar and convert all of your upcoming networking conversations or dinners or social engagements to video calls, instead of canceling them.
- Arrange a physically distant coffee catch-up. You meet at one corner and your friend starts on the other side of the street. You each bring your own coffee and walk on your own side of the street, while you catch up by talking across the street. Have kids? Arrange a game of physically distant I Spy. You meet on one corner, the other family meets on the other corner, and the kids take turns shouting I Spy items to one another. Get creative.
- Take note of your most key relationships (for example, your mentors and mentees) and send them each a note asking how they are doing, how you can be helpful, and their preferred method and cadence for staying in touch during this time. Then stay in touch that way with each person.
- Pick up your phone and call a friend, unannounced. Yes. Call someone. Say hello and ask how the person is doing. Try this multiple times with multiple people and stay in touch as it makes sense.
As you implement your digital networking strategy, keep in mind a few best practices.
- Avoid one-time reach-outs (aka first “virtual” coffee dates). Just as going on many first coffee dates in person is not the best use of your time, the same is true of going on a bunch of one-time virtual coffee dates. Make key virtual check-ins recurring, so that you are able to get in touch with people repeatedly throughout this pandemic experience. Just as for an in-person coffee, be sure to execute follow-up on any homework items from the conversation.
- Acknowledge that conversations (personal and professional) may be more personal right now and that is okay. This means you will have a chance to share conversations that are more candid and vulnerable, and that is what makes us human. Empathy and kindness, which have always been critical, are particularly essential right now.
- You have probably read that you should be hopping on video calls with everybody you know. What if you are an introvert? What if you are exhausted from homeschooling and working and coparenting and cleaning up during the day?
- Determine whether you are more comfortable having a virtual coffee with just one other person, or if you would rather attend a virtual group coffee or happy hour.
- Take the lead on organizing catch-ups with people, so that you can be sure to invite people with whom you have strong relationships. Once on the call, lightly moderate the conversation so that you keep it flowing. Ask questions. Make sure everybody gets introduced and that everyone has a chance to speak.
- Don’t forget to get double (or triple or quadruple) opt-in before convening several people on a virtual coffee or happy hour. This means asking all of those people who do not know each other whether they are open to meeting the other people on the call.
- Establish a pandemic text buddy and just send a quick note to one another each day checking in on how you are.
When you customize and take a more proactive approach to networking, you can better steer the engagement and outcomes.
It is unclear how the world will look or be when this is all behind us. However, what’s clear is with the possibilities that technology provides, meaningful networking can be done digitally. All you need to make that happen is a focused, achievable strategy that prioritizes thinking about where you and the people in your network are right now, and where you want to be.
Megan Burke Roudebush is the founder of keepwith and teaches people how to network. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.