4 ways to keep networking while social distancing

Ready for a glimmer of good news amid the general gloom? How about this: Even if you’re one of those outgoing types who’s used to growing your professional network face-to-face, at the kinds of events and gatherings now called off for the duration, you can still maintain your connections—and cultivate new ones—at a safe distance.

“Networking remotely isn’t difficult at all,” notes Rosina Racioppi, CEO of Women Unlimited, whose leadership-development training and consulting is focused on advancing women at companies like American Express, Google, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft. Adds Racioppi, who wrote a forthcoming book about networking called Relationships Matter, “The only obstacle to building a great network virtually is that so many people working at home, especially for the first time, forget to do it.”

That’s understandable, considering the barrage of pressures and distractions we’re enduring now, but strengthening professional ties and seeking out new ones could pay dividends after the pandemic has receded into history. In the meantime, here are four ways you can keep networking.

1. Contact clients you haven’t heard from in a while

Karen Wickre, former editorial director at Twitter and author of Taking the Work Out of Networking: Your Guide to Making Connections That Count, suggests taking a few minutes a day to contact clients you haven’t recently kept in touch with. “Ask how they’re faring, and let them know you’d like to help, if you can,” she says. “It’s not a sales call, it’s a goodwill call. They will remember it later.”

Likewise, Wickre says, take a brief daily break from work to send short notes to former colleagues and other contacts “to say you’re thinking about them and ask how they’re doing. If you know their personal tastes, send along music, or movie or reading lists. It’s a friendly gesture that keeps you in touch”—even if they’re too swamped with work and worry to reply right now.

2. Thoroughly update your LinkedIn

Let’s suppose you (like most of us) haven’t taken the time to make the most of LinkedIn since the last time you were looking for a job. Now is a good moment to make sure your profile is up-to-date, ask contacts for recommendations, join groups you’re interested in, and comment on other people’s posts.

The point is to be as visible as you can. Why? These days, recruiters of all stripes—including those looking for possible new board members and future conference speakers, as well as potential hires—are spending even more time combing through social media than they normally do. It’s smart to make sure they can spot you.

3. Approach new contacts

You ended up with some time instead of a long daily trek to the office? One constructive use for it: Think creatively about new contacts you could add to your current network—but, says Racioppi at Women Unlimited, make sure they’re the right ones. The networking mistake most people make, by her lights, is gravitating toward “connecting to what’s comfortable for us, validating our own views, and confirming what we already know.”

By contrast, Racioppi’s research shows the most successful businesspeople get where they are by building a broad network of knowledgeable connections, both inside and outside their own fields and industries. “You need people who can be sounding boards for your ideas and plans, and who will challenge your thinking and question your assumptions,” she says. “Without a wide variety of points of view, it’s too easy to get stuck in ‘silo thinking,’ where everyone in your network sees things the same way you do. That drastically limits what you can learn—and how far you can go.”

Racioppi 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. 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.”

4. Set up informational interviews

The COVID-19 crisis might turn out to be a weirdly apt moment for informational interviews with a few of your networking contacts, old or new. If you’ve been mulling a new job or career that might interest you, suggests Karin Bodewits, “take this time to reach out to professionals who currently hold those jobs.”

A cofounder of a Munich-based global online network of academics in the sciences, Bodewits notes that while you can’t meet up at your local Starbucks, “you can ask for a quick phone call or Skype chat. The reality is that the people you’d like to speak with may be working from home too. What’s more, they may be itching for more social contact.” Too true.

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