Networking has always been essential for professional success. Whether cultivating new connections within an organization or developing external partnerships, networks can make or break our careers.
Yet how do we build and maintain connections with colleagues who we may rarely see in person? How can we maintain relationships when we are not in the office? How might we mix the physical and virtual water coolers?
To understand how we can network differently, I reached out to Dorie Clark, who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. She’s the author of numerous best-selling business books, including The Long Game, How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World.
For starters, Clark says you need to recognize the differences between remote and in-person networking.
“The biggest difference is that you can afford to be a little more slack when operating in person because you don’t have to consciously plan things out,” she explains. “You will be running into people, and things will happen that are more accidental or serendipitous.”
By contrast, she says we need to be more intentional about networking when we work remotely.
“You have to be more conscious and proactive when you’re . . . remote because those accidental collisions are typically not going to happen on their own. So it’s not to say you can’t network effectively from remote—you can—you just can’t be passive about it. It requires more planning and more conscious thought.”
Be less transactional during remote meetings
It starts with thinking about how we interact during remote meetings. Clark suggests that the natural focus on only discussing the work when you’re not face-to-face is transactional and damages our working relationships and network.
“That might feel satisfying because you can get the task done more rapidly, but it’s really not satisfying for the person on the other end of the equation, because they know they’re being treated like a tool that will help you accomplish your goal and nothing more than that. It’s really important to try to remind ourselves to ask about the person, to talk to them, and to engage in conversation, so you have a three-dimensional view of their life and vice versa.”
Making time to be social is even more critical with colleagues who are working remotely.
“If you’re in a hybrid situation, some of your colleagues may be far away. You may only be dealing with them electronically, so it’s important to be mindful of those exchanges and just stay on for a few minutes or chat for a little bit beforehand, so you don’t lose the social niceties.”
Maximize time for socializing in the office
When going into the office, it’s essential to make time for socializing, which Clark defines as “the social form of work, where part of what you need to be conscious of is cultivating interpersonal connections.”
She emphasizes the need to plan your in-office socializing time. “Say okay, who else is going to be in the office, who do I need to be connecting with, who do I need to meet with to accomplish something, and who do I need to be meeting with to relationship-build and deepen my connection with?”
And after the pandemic, it’s vital to be explicit about wanting to connect. “People have gotten used to being weird about COVID or have gotten used to not inviting people,” Clark points out. “So you’ve got to remind them.”
Finally, Clark reminds us to not fall back into the pre-pandemic habit of eating lunch at our desks. “If you only have two days in the office, you should never eat alone.”
Expand your network now
The shift to hybrid work is an excellent opportunity to meet new people, which suffered during the pandemic. Clark says Microsoft’s Work Trend Index report found that “weak networks” with people outside our immediate professional circle suffered the most. The move to hybrid provides an opportunity to fix that. “If there are people who you only know peripherally,” she explains, “there may have been many people onboarded, for instance, and you haven’t even met them. . . . This is a really good time.”
Build those weak networks through an existing professional connection, even a tenuous one.
“If there is somebody who you know very tangentially, you know they came to a meeting once, . . . or you just emailed . . . you could say, ‘Oh hey, I’m really making an effort now that things are a little less crazy to try to get to know people more deeply who I’ve only just emailed with. Would you like to hop on and have a 20-minute Zoom call with me just so I can put a face to the name?’ If you work at the same company, they’ll probably say yes.”
Stand out to new connections by providing value
Technology enables us to connect with far more people than ever before, but Clark says there’s a flip side.
“If it’s easier for you, then it’s easier for everybody. The problem is no longer reaching the person. The problem is standing out when you reach the person. So it’s understanding how to craft the message or craft a request that would be interesting and meaningful and attention-getting and actually look a little different than what everybody else is doing.”
Her advice, particularly if you are reaching out to a high-profile person, is to “stand out by making an offer that would be legitimately valuable to them, which implies that we have to get into their head and understand what would be valuable to them.” Clark says when you do that, it enables you to come in “as a peer and as a colleague rather than as a supplicant.”
Practice “Infinite Horizon Networking”
In her book The Long Game, Clark introduces “Infinite Horizon Networking,” which is all about connecting with people you may have no apparent reason to connect with now, but may in the future. Even the best networkers may miss the opportunity that Infinite Horizon Networking can bring. “Their bias is, ‘Oh, I’m in marketing, so I need to know marketing people,’ and it doesn’t quote-unquote seem worthwhile to cultivate relationships with people outside your field, outside your city, outside your sphere,” she says.
Even if the payoff may take years, Infinite Horizon Networks can expose us to new perspectives and new information. “The further afield it is, the less it seems relevant,” Clark admits, “and honestly, it might not be relevant. . . . But when it is, it is extremely relevant.”
Clark recommends TEDx events as one place to begin building your Infinite Horizon Networks. “There are TEDxs all around the world, and they bring together people who are interested in a diversity of ideas,” she says. University alumni networks are another place to start. “You have enough of a commonality that you can talk to them, but they may have ended up in very, very different regions and industries.”
Like any disruption, the shift to hybrid working provides opportunities that allow us to expand and broaden our networks. Clark maintains that by spending only one hour a week connecting with new people, we can expand our network by up to 50 people per year.
It doesn’t take a lot of time, but the benefits can be massive.