On paper, networking is a relatively easy task. Mingle with like-minded professionals while sipping wine and you’ll increase your chances of landing a coveted job or building your dream career.
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Before COVID, when preparing for a networking event, you probably would have walked into a venue and thought, “Smile. Think about your elevator pitch. If all else fails, talk about the weather.”
Now, however, many of us face a slightly different dilemma: how to connect while working remotely. We work in makeshift home offices, with kids demanding tea or pets stepping on keyboards, and we’ve become BBC Dad, AKA Robert Kelly, together. The Busan-based political scientist famously went viral in 2017 when his children interrupted a live interview he was doing on TV and his wife struggled to get them from his office.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet, or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and provide answers as we navigate through this tumultuous period of life.
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As difficult as it may be to meet people in such circumstances, research shows that the challenge is worth taking on. Networking accounts for up to 85% of all vacancies, according to an online survey. It can also result in significant pay increases, as illustrated by recent story of how one employee raked in a £24,000 pay rise through networking alone.
My research shows that by early 2022, 44% of young people were using social media to look for career information – up from just 19% a decade ago – and 42% consulted their social networks when making a career decision. Online networking was a crucial tool for career development even before the pandemic.
How to network online
Video conferencing has of course become the norm with remote working. Online networking events are now routinely held live on platforms like EventBrite, Slack, Yammer, and Instagram.
So do your research first: identify the organizations, associations and causes that interest you most. Find blogs and forums relevant to your field of work and subscribe to as many mailing lists as you can efficiently manage. Find your people and follow them on social media.
The goal of this first step is to increase the amount of information you receive passively. This creates the so-called environmental affordance: the opportunity for action that your environment offers you. The more regularly you are informed about relevant events, the more likely it is that you will attend them.
Second, be strategic. In a world where conference dinners and impromptu water-cooler talks have been replaced by zoom catch-ups, things aren’t as spontaneous as they used to be. Scheduling is key.
Create a personal network plan. Decide how much time you want to devote to online networking and write down your goals: how many people you want to talk to; which companies you would like to learn more about; which specific people you need to go to to discuss certain topics. Make sure you plan ahead to maintain your online presence. And opt for a variety of engagements such as webinars, online recruitment fairs, in-person Zoom meetings, and online conferences.
Third, research shows that the most productive networkers possess proactive personality traits and are likely to score well on personality tests on extroversion, a trait associated with being open-minded and seeking new experiences. But that doesn’t mean you have to be an extrovert to be successful in networking. You just have to be proactive: Being proactive is the most powerful indicator of networking success.
If there is a specific individual or group of professionals you would like to develop a relationship with, reach out to them directly. Email them, send them a message on Twitter, set up a Zoom meeting, or research the online networking mixers they could join.
Why networking is critical to success
Networking underpins two key aspects of career advancement: employability and self-directed career development.
The first, employability, refers to what economists refer to as a potential employee’s human capital: their external marketability and the relative value of their educational background, technical skills and soft skills – such as communication, time management and creativity – in the job market. Networking makes your human capital visible to employers and drives hiring decisions.
Self-directed career development, on the other hand, is an ongoing personal development project in which you seek career information and take action toward long-term career goals. Networking is a crucial means of obtaining career information here. This will help you increase your personal aspirations and find out if a particular job, company or industry is right for you. The direct experiences of other people working in a particular job can be helpful in assessing whether you too would be a good fit.
Networking also helps build relationships with mentors and role models, and provides access to peer support communities and professional groups. It’s about more than just securing a job. It creates a sense of belonging and a professional identity, while developing what social scientists call “social capital”: shared norms, values, and beliefs in professional communities.
Networking involves a set of skills – reaching out, finding common ground, nurturing relationships – that can be practiced and learned. Of these, listening, not talking, is perhaps the most important. Show an interest in other people’s work and ask them questions, and you’ll be well on your way to making meaningful connections that won’t just benefit you as an individual. Since they encourage knowledge sharing and collaborative problem solving, your community will benefit too.