The global coronavirus pandemic has led to lock downs, social distancing mandates and a major shift in the American workplace. Many professionals have been fortunate enough to switch to remote work and keep their jobs. But many also worry that their long-term career goals will suffer as social distancing curtails business activities such as sales and networking.
Even in a society that has become increasingly digital, professionals and industry leaders still rely on in-person events to make connections and conduct business. But while the virus won't allow us to be face-to-face for the near future, the good news is that the same business skills you've honed over your professional lifetime can help you build your network and close deals online, too.
Below are a few tips on how to cultivate your professional network from home.
For many industry professionals, it's comforting to know that most rules for in-person networking events also apply to virtual encounters.
Networking in general requires that you:
Stay personable. Potential employers are looking to hire individuals who not only have the needed expertise but also can get along with others in the workplace.
Relate to your peers. Naturally finding common talking points with other professionals allows you to connect on a personal level and helps you stand out in the networking crowd.
Do your research. If you're looking for a new job, it's essential to show employers you care by knowing the background of the company you're targeting. In doing your homework, you're also learning the industries into which you fit best.
Though you may have to do some extra work to make sure your likability comes across on a computer screen, the professional benefits of building new relationships during this time when everyone feels challenged in the same way could outweigh the effort.
"In the sports industry, for example, we connect with a number of people every day, so you have to keep the interactions through digital platforms as real as possible to make them memorable," said Todd Burach, who specializes in sports banking at City National Bank. "Just remember that both you and the person on the other end are probably multi-tasking, the best thing you can do though is stay present in the conversation."
Staying present can be easier if you discover shared interests — such as talking about common professional goals or sharing personal experiences — but you must remain strategic about how you find that common ground.
For instance, not everyone is ready to open up and build a relationship over Zoom. If you find that your contact juggles multiple tasks at once and usually takes time to respond, email may be the safest option at first.
Perhaps the best tool for forming these strategic relationships online is LinkedIn, a social media platform that claims a user base of 660 million individuals and more than 30 million registered companies.
"With COVID-19, I can't really interact with people face-to-face, but I have been figuring out how to show up for moments I would normally celebrate in-person with my network. In general, I've watched myself and others be a lot more supportive of the achievements of connections, big and small, shared on LinkedIn," said Arielle Moyal, director of baseball marketing at REP1 Sports. “I offer congratulations or words of support in instances I normally would have passed on because I would have been able to see that person in a couple weeks or knew we would be at the same appearance in the future. I think everyone needs that little extra bit of love to still feel connected right now."
Maintaining your digital reputation and supporting those in your network over LinkedIn is more crucial now than ever if you're to maintain close relationships. This means not only making sure your profile is professional but also staying active enough on the platform to be discovered, remembered and liked by your peers.
“On LinkedIn, you're getting exposed to a whole new community of people that you may not have even known before," said Caryn Epstein, who is focused on segment marketing for the entertainment division at City National Bank. “There's the one level of you wanting to make sure your LinkedIn looks good, but you also want to make sure you're properly interacting on the website. If you refine your news feed and follow a lot of thought leaders in your industry, it makes gathering connections and potential opportunities so much easier."
Although creating a good LinkedIn profile may seem like a chore, it's crucial to building a positive professional reputation. Remember that if you never embellish the truth, and if you maintain and nurture a strong online presence, these efforts alone can communicate your professional readiness, ethos and attention to detail.
Adapting to virtual networking doesn't just entail creating a LinkedIn account. If you really want to get your name out, sometimes you have to capitalize on the opportunities that don't necessarily present themselves in obvious circumstances — whether that means blogging, participating in timely discussions on social media or attending charity events online.
If you're confident in your writing skills and have something insightful to say about your profession, starting an online newsletter can be an ideal method for keeping up with your peers, sharing industry news, growing an audience and attracting attention from potential employers.
For instance, if you are building a reputation as a sports expert, you might consider sharing your professional insights over Instagram or email and, hopefully, gain some recognition. Tools like Mailchimp are great for building your first email list.
But if you're short on time, you certainly don't have to write thought-driven pieces every week in order to participate in important discussions. Platforms like Twitter allow you to comment on current events and, in the process, connect with other professionals who might be interested in the same topic.
“You learn to network through other routes," Moyal said. “One really great example of that recently was the article in The Washington Post about Washington's NFL team, which gave [women in sports] a moment to talk about our experiences and we all did it online. Maybe normally I'd be at a conference or symposium where instead I would be meeting those people, but I'm not because those are not happening face-to-face anymore, so I'm using Twitter."
Openness about personal experiences and values is nothing to shy away from when you make connections with your peers. In the professional space, that kind of willingness to share can help bridge the social gap that lingers even when you are using LinkedIn and other online platforms to your best advantage.
Supporting charitable causes related to your industry is another way to meet and form relationships with like-minded professionals. Someone interested in philanthropy or a specific cause may want to look for Zoom events hosted by nonprofits and reach out to potential colleagues who might have attended to compare notes.
“I think connecting and aligning ourselves with charitable organizations is an incredible way to network, because you're being put in a space of like-minded people," Epstein said. “A lot of these organizations are holding virtual events. [They] help you align with people, and that can help to bring out your authentic self."
Whichever way you intend to show your “authentic self," know that it's equally possible to achieve success online as it is in person. Those few clicks can go a long way for your career — long after virtual networking is no longer the only way to connect.
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