The argument for networking and the negative impact of COVID
A persuasive argument for networking is fairly simply to draw up. In fact, it’s likely that you already don’t need much convincing! In today’s world, most of us accept that at least a certain amount of networking is a professional necessity.
It isn’t just that many jobs and business opportunities can come your way via your network, rather than through more formal channels. Considerable research also shows that a good network can help to enrich your expertise base; improve your capacity to innovate; accelerate your career and enhance your professional standing.
But the COVID pandemic has eroded many of these advantages, as events, meetings, forums and conferences have been curtailed and we all spend significantly more time working from home.
Studies by Yale School of Management’s Marissa King (author of ‘Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection’) show that many people’s professional and personal networks shrank by close to 16% during the COVID pandemic.
A shrinking network has some serious downsides. It makes it harder for you to get ahead as you might like. For organisations, it can lead to less creativity and a greater risk of groupthink, as people test and explore ideas with their peers far less often than they used to.
An additional downside of network shrinkage concerns engagement and well-being. King has found that people with fewer connections at work experience a decreased sense of belonging and are less likely to identify with the organisation and its purpose.
The vital role of your ‘weak ties’ with others
In an interesting piece of research conducted before the pandemic, social scientists Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn asked participants to count how often they interacted with a stranger or an acquaintance (i.e. as opposed to a close friend) during the course of a normal working day.
They found that, when all the chance meetings and ‘water cooler’ conversations were added up, the average professional interacted every day with between 11 and 16 people that they didn’t know particularly well. It seems that the accumulation of these small, positive interactions makes people feel happier and leads to a greater sense of belonging. A human community, they theorised, isn’t just built around having a certain number of intimate relationships. It also relies on what the authors termed the ‘surprising power of weak ties.’
Quite often, these chance encounters contribute vital information. It’s about those connections that help to ‘oil the wheels’, especially in project work. Knowing who to ask or who could help can make a significant difference to your ability to be effective, especially under pressure.
In fact, this point about ‘weak ties’ goes to something fundamental about how networks operate. Think of your network as a series of concentric circles, moving out from the centre (you), in rings of decreasing emotional intensity. The innermost circle, closest to you, contains the roughly five or so people you feel you’d turn to in times of severe stress or personal challenge. You can envisage confiding in these people and leaning on them.
In contrast, the outermost ring is where you’d locate your much larger number of ‘weak ties’ – those people you engage with less personally. It seems the narrowing down of our lives during COVID has caused that outermost ring to shrink while, in contrast, more intimate relationships have, in many instances, become stronger.
This turns out to be the case even in tech companies where, arguably, employees might be expected to be more at ease with digital or virtual interactions. As an example, Ethan Bernstein of Harvard Business School surveyed a range of tech companies. He found that exchanges among close collaborators increased by 40% as a result of the pandemic’s push towards the new hybrid workplace. But this increase was at the expense of 10% less communication among more distant colleagues.
Bernstein argues that, over the longer term, this erosion of opportunities to interact with your ‘weaker ties’ leads to network shrinkage and interferes with problem solving. Ideas, information and possible solutions become less well integrated, he found.
A healthy network is dynamic. There is movement, churn and renewal. Marissa King’s research demonstrates that too often we try to grow our network without understanding some of these dynamics. You need the concentric rings. You need old friends and you also need new acquaintances. You benefit, professionally and personally, from having a broad and diverse base, made up of connections who can fulfill a wide range of roles in relation to you, your life and your career.
In our programs about how to build your network, we typically find that these insights are quite new for people. We look at more than a dozen role types and push people to start taking a more strategic approach to their network. Post COVID, there is now a particular need for this to be intentional. But it does require some particular approaches and skills. Let’s look at some of these.
It’s time to reconnect and reach out!
Without some focused and intentional effort to regenerate your network, your world risks staying smaller even post COVID. It’s time to reach out to people you’ve fallen out of contact with. It’s worthwhile taking some care of your network, so it can take care of you when you need it!
Our clients often say that this sounds like a great idea and just what they know they should do. But they feel hesitant and awkward. They’re not sure how to make a first move when that move is, necessarily, going to be virtual and deliberate i.e., not simply being open to those lucky, chance encounters that were such a feature of the old work place.
The key is to bear in mind the ancient ‘law of reciprocity.’ In other words, when you make a small effort towards another person, this primes them to reciprocate. It might not work with everyone but it does with most people. In fact, some economists (for instance, Samuel Bowles) have argued that we should rename our species. We shouldn’t be called ‘homo sapiens’ but ‘homo reciprocans!’
Here are some suggestions our UGM clients have employed to help them tackle this challenge of network shrinkage post COVID.
- Is there someone (e.g., an old mentor, colleague or manager) you feel grateful towards? Send them a brief email outlining your appreciation.
- Have you read or listened to something recently that you found interesting? Can you think of someone you used to know who might enjoy this too?
- Is there someone whose help or advice you’d like to request? The assistance should be something quite modest. Most people are flattered by such requests and the mutual sense of purpose this generates is a powerful connector.
- Pick up the phone and call an old friend or a previous colleague and ask how things are going. Your unexpected brief ‘check in’ could make a genuine difference to their day and reinvigorate the connection.
- Set aside 20 minutes each week for a virtual coffee with someone who is at risk of disappearing from your network’s vital outer ring. Remember these weak ties matter!
Using LinkedIn to support your post COVID networking
LinkedIn offers a great opportunity to grow your network virtually. You can track trends, make relevant new connections and keep your digital profile up-to-date. But our clients often comment that, despite putting some effort in, they feel they don’t realise much in the way of benefit. This is generally because they are making one or more of the following mistakes:
- They haven’t thought through exactly what they want and why they are seeking this particular new connection.
- They put their own needs first and make a request without clarifying what might be in it for the other person.
- Their overture was too general and too dull! For example, ye olde, “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn,” is hardly exciting!
So how might you craft a message that’s more likely to elicit a positive response?
- Be direct and specific about what you’re asking and why.
- Be confident but also courteous.
- Mention a referral or an existing connection if there is one.
- Ensure any request is modest and reasonable.
- Read the person’s profile with some care so that your overture is specifically tailored to them and their interests.
- Consider cultivating a longer to and fro connection before you make a request. What could you share that might be relevant to that person’s profile and career trajectory?
Yes, you’ll likely get some silences and some rejections too. Growth of any kind comes with risks. But you’ll learn from each attempt and improve along the way!
Do you feel a sense of connection and belonging?
In 2022, Gartner surveyed nearly 3,500 employees about their connections. They found that when organisations help their people to build connections intentionally, people were five times more likely to belong to a high performing team and twelve times more likely to feel connected to their colleagues. Your network is a powerful asset and, like any asset, it needs to be cultivated. Our post COVID world offers some great opportunities to do this, if you’re willing to be adaptable and a bit experimental as well. By harnessing the power of networks, you’ll feel happier and your work will benefit too!
PRACTICAL IDEAS TO APPLY IN YOUR BUSINESS
Suggestions to get you started!
- Use Zoom or Teams to help you connect with someone who doesn’t live or work near you. After all, these platforms make diversifying your network much easier. Geographical barriers are removed!
- Experiment with using LinkedIn (Twitter or Instagram) to connect with someone interesting in your sector. A person who seems to have a different perspective or background from your own is someone you could learn from. For your network to be a real resource for you, it needs to be more than an ‘echo chamber’ where everyone is similar.
- Consider hosting a virtual networking event. Invite three people you know and ask each to ‘bring a friend.’ Six or seven people is a good number for an interesting conversation. Pick a topic. For example, invite each person to share what they’re looking forward to at work this year. Spend thirty minutes together – a virtual cup of coffee.
- Reach out via an email to someone you haven’t seen in a long while. Remind yourself that this person is quite likely going to feel pleased you got back in touch. No need to feel awkward! Acknowledge that it’s been a while. Give a brief update about what you’ve been doing professionally. Make an offer of help, such as, “Please let me know how I can be helpful to you now or in the future.” UGM clients who’ve tried this report what a positive experience it proves to be.
- Reflect on the current state of your network. Where are the gaps? What are the strong points? What kind of people might enrich your network? Start low key and small. Do something that needs a modest effort only but make the most of every opportunity to cultivate your network. Who could you reach out to today? Identify just three people and use the practical tips in this briefing to help you connect or reconnect!