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Professional Networking in a Time of Physical Distancing

Many professionals completed their 2020 Marketing and Business Development plans toward the end of 2019 or early in 2020. That seems like a lifetime ago. Since then, throughout our country, whether by government mandate or strong suggestion, businesses are sending workers home from all but “essential” services. So, you packed up your laptop and your open files and set up your home office. You’ve scrolled through hundreds of social media posts laughing about the strange behavior of your new furry co-workers (a la “My ‘co-worker’ just jumped on my desk and licked my face. I think I need to call HR.”).

For some, business continues to pump along at its usual pace, but for many, there is a strange silence. If you find yourself on the quieter side, now is a good time to dust off your contacts list and start connecting.

Who Do You Know or Want to Know?

Take this time to scroll through your contacts or, better yet, look in your emails for people who have not yet been added to your contact lists. Update their information in your systems. Who are your top clients and referral sources? Have you had any connection with them since this whole craziness started? If not, make a list and start connecting. Who have you been meaning to meet? Have you put a new membership organization or conference into your business development plan? If those events are cancelled, why not identify folks who you would have met in person and reach out virtually? While many are juggling the demands of their work and family obligations, there is no reason you can’t start to identify appropriate ways to broaden and deepen relationships within your network.

Social Media

Social media, and especially LinkedIn, is a great place to start. Spend a little time adding people to your networks. Consider if it’s appropriate to connect with clients and referral sources. It may be fine to add some of these folks to your Facebook and Instagram, but LinkedIn should be a safe space for almost anyone you know through work. Be sure to include a personal note reminding them how you know each other and wishing them well in an individual way. If they accept the invitation, follow up with a short note to suggest a phone call. Check out if they belong to any online groups that would be beneficial to join. Watch their posts and “like” or comment as appropriate to signal you are engaged and care what they have to say.

You can share your own stories and respond to other people’s posts, but the real magic is in the one-to-one conversations, even when in the public or semi-public sphere. As always, you should be authentic and thoughtful. Remember, just because you are still in your yoga pants, your posts should continue to be appropriate to your network, company and profession.

Unless you are an expert in something, don’t share information without fact-checking, even if posted by someone you respect. Avoid too many posts about how you are spending your days drinking and cursing your significant other. Do support those in your network who seem to be struggling. Find helpful resources and suggestions to add value and to raise the spirits of friends and colleagues.

To eliminate some email clutter, many companies are now setting up internal private groups in LinkedIn, Slack, Microsoft Teams and other platforms, so people can share photos and stay connected in a virtual breakroom through chats and discussion boards. Keeping the human connection is important to avoid the negative impacts of isolation. Be a contributor in those forums to deepen your connections with colleagues.

Video Conferencing

Taking networking technology one step further, groups of friends and colleagues are setting up virtual meetings and gatherings. Whether to collaborate on a work project or to toast each other during a virtual happy hour, these group meetups can be a fun way to break the monotony of working from home. Just remember to clean your background of anything embarrassing before turning on your camera. If that isn’t possible, many of the software platforms now offer features wherein you can blur your background or post a virtual background.

If you have not participated in a video conference before, there are plenty of tips you can read online. Spend a little time learning about the technology and practice with co-workers or family members before you invite your best client into a virtual meeting. It’s tempting to turn your camera off and hide behind the “black box” or static photo that people will see if you do, but try to avoid the temptation. Brush your hair and let people see your face. That is part of the power of connecting. It also helps with the conversation flow, since we humans take many of our conversation cues from nonverbal communication (i.e., body language). If you can see each other, it will be more obvious when someone wants to jump into the conversation or is nodding in agreement.

Taking Charge of Your Networking

So how do you flip that into business development? Instead of waiting for someone else to invite you to such an event, why not put together your own? Are there people who would benefit from meeting each other? Consider setting up a three-way video conference to introduce them to each other, just as you would if you invited them to lunch. Are you a committee leader in an organization? Rather than postponing, host your next meeting as scheduled via video conference. If your committee’s business is on hold pending future events, you can still get the group together to stay connected. Most of us take on these volunteer roles in order to meet people (not because we love stuffing nametags). So, don’t let current events shut down your ability to build relationships. Ask attendees to talk about how the coronavirus is impacting their businesses. Encourage people to share what they are doing to stay productive. Think of creative ways your group can support the larger organization or a community cause during this time.

The Old-Fashioned Telephone

Maybe you’re still wearing your “office pajamas.” That’s okay, no one can see you on the phone. Send a quick text to let a contact know you are thinking about them. Assuming you have reasonable cell service or (gasp) a landline, you can avoid the choppy connections and transmission delays caused by all of your neighbors eating up your bandwidth. The good old-fashioned telephone call may still be one of the best ways to connect. Call clients and referral sources to check on them. Do they need anything (and not related to your services at all)? Take your time and really listen to them. Don’t feel that you have to “fix” their problems. Being a sympathetic ear is often enough.

Connection Isn’t the Technology

While you may want to wait to send a personal note until more information is available regarding viral transmission via paper, the important thing is to connect. Letting people know that you care about them and following through on offers to help are welcome activities in good times and bad. Being a positive contributor to the conversation helps to build trust and deepen relationships. So, make a personal, achievable goal to have meaningful connections with at least a couple of people every day. It will be good for their spirits and yours.

Lydia Bednerik Neal

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