Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have been cocooned, talking primarily to our existing colleagues and contacts. But for the sake of our long-term professional growth, it’s time to start meeting new people and rebuilding loose ties once again. To reprioritize networking, the author offers strategies for easing back into networking when we may feel rusty and out of practice: rebuild your dormant ties, ask a friend for connections, identify commonalities, choose targeted events to attend, and recruit a co-host when hosting your own event.
Even for committed networkers, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the typical opportunities for making professional connections, with canceled conferences, a shift to virtual and remote work, and far fewer opportunities for in-person networking events. As a result, many of us have doubled down on our existing relationships, radically reducing the number of new people we’ve met over the past two years, and have let our loose connections go. In one study, weak ties dropped 21% at companies that shifted to remote work arrangements.
That may not seem like a problem in the moment, but over time, researchers suggest, it can lead to a decrease in innovation because we’re not being exposed to new perspectives. So how can we start to reprioritize networking, when we may feel rusty and out of practice?
I explore that question in my book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, because relationship building, when done right, is the cornerstone for long-term opportunity. Here are strategies that will prove helpful as we re-emerge into the office and other professional gatherings — no matter what size gathering you’re ready to attend.
Reintroduce one-on-one connections.
Attending large scale networking events may feel overwhelming if you haven’t done it in a while. (And let’s be clear: they were always overwhelming for introverts.)
If that’s the case, a good starting place to rebuild your networking muscles may be seeking out one-on-one connections. You can begin with colleagues or clients you may have connected with virtually during the pandemic, and with whom you’d like to deepen your relationship. You can also create a list of dormant ties — people you haven’t seen or interacted with much during the past two years, with whom you’d like to refresh your relationship.
If you’ve exhausted those opportunities, or can’t think of people you’d like to meet up with, ask a friend (especially one who you know is a good connector) for suggestions about people you ought to meet. See if they’d be open to making introductions or hosting a three-way coffee or video call to connect you. They’ll likely be glad to assist.
This is a great way to reintroduce yourself to the basics of networking — which, at its heart, is just getting to know interesting people more deeply.
Attend networking events.
If you feel ready to dive into an in-person networking event, be aware that some things have changed, including the amount of personal space that you, and others, feel is appropriate. Additionally, we’ll need to go back to the basics of practicing small talk and finding ways to connect with strangers.
The best move, psychologist Robert Cialdini suggests, is to rapidly identify a commonality you share with the other person. Having something in common not only gives you something to talk about, but also conveys that you’re “one of them,” creating a pathway to build trust. Coming out of a pandemic in which social contact was curtailed and strangers were feared as potential vectors of disease, it may be especially powerful to emphasize your similarities with new connections.
One strategy that makes this easy is choosing targeted events to attend. Rather than going to a general networking mixer, for instance, you might make an effort to attend something sponsored by your alumni association. You automatically have something in common with fellow attendees, so conversation is likely to flow more easily (“What house did you live in? You were a major philosophy. Did you take Professor Green’s class?”) Additionally, the shared experience helps build a sense of familiarity faster, and you may find you have mutual connections already, further deepening the tie.
Host your own events.
The problem with attending other people’s events is that they may not be optimized for networking the way you like to do it. (I recently attended an event, and am simultaneously grateful to the hosts for bringing people together and also incredulous that they didn’t provide name tags to help facilitate introductions.)
If you’re willing to take the lead on organizing an event, you can not only control the attendee list, but also structure the flow. (For instance, I’ll pose a “table question” to unify the group at a dinner gathering.) You can also accommodate your health preferences. (Weather permitting, the Covid-cautious can reserve outdoor seating.)
You might consider recruiting a co-host. Dividing responsibilities helps lighten the load. (You can invite three to four guests, and they can do the same.) It also ensures you have help in making the event run smoothly. (If you’re in the bathroom when the conversation lurches into controversial topics, your cohost can steer it back on track.) And of course, the primary benefit is that your cohost will be exposed to your network, and vice versa.
The weak ties from the cross-pollination of your networks can be transformative: One woman I invited to a dinner met a fellow participant who became an advisor to her startup and helped her raise her first round of capital. Remember: Almost everyone feels just as out of practice with networking as you do, and even if they can’t attend your event, they’ll likely welcome and appreciate the invitation, given that professional networking opportunities have been so scarce of late.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have been cocooned, talking primarily to our existing colleagues and contacts. But for the sake of our long-term professional growth, it’s time to start meeting new people, and rebuilding loose ties, once again. As you ease back in and use these strategies, you’ll be well positioned to create and maintain lasting professional relationships.