The new rules of business networking

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 15, 2020

Professional networking during a pandemic poses a unique challenge. Gone are the opportunities to exchange business cards at a breakfast event, or ask an influential figure in your field for a quick chat over coffee. Elevator pitches are no good when offices are deserted and people prefer to use the stairs. And working from home makes it much harder to schmooze the boss, or other senior managers, during a break in a meeting. And yet, months into the pandemic, those who network compulsively-and those driven to it in search of a job or career-enhancing opportunities-are still at it. How? Does it even work? We asked executives, entrepreneurs and business coaches for their take on what professional networking looks like now.

  • Be methodical, and get comfortable being uncomfortable. When she moved from Paris to London 18 years ago, Flavilla Fongang didn’t speak a word of English. She decided to build a network of friends who didn’t speak French. “I got out of my comfort zone, but I also learnt English very quickly,” she says. After the pandemic hit, Ms Fongang, who now runs 3 Colours Rule, a marketing agency, used a similar strategy to network. With business events moving online, she settled on a methodical process of identifying potential clients and partners on the guest list ahead of time, speaking up to get noticed during the event and then connecting with selected attendees on LinkedIn immediately afterwards. “Nothing happens if you stay in your comfort zone,” says Ms Fongang.
  • Do your research. An online interaction can be “a higher quality interaction than just striking up a conversation with whoever you run into at a conference,” says Tiana Clark, chief of staff for Channel Sales at Microsoft. “You have the time to do your research on a person and are reaching out to someone intentionally, so you can establish common ground.” There is no point doing things by halves. Her recommended conversation-starter is a one-slide summary that quickly and clearly lays out your background, personal attributes and proudest achievements. It also shows that you mean business.
  • Always be networking. Katherine Baker, a management coach, started a company, Intrinsic Energy, during lockdown with a grant from the British government. It was, she says, the unexpected outcome of attending a YouTube event on innovation and connectivity. Ms Baker messaged the other participants and came away with a list of email addresses and cordial invitations to correspond with her. “It doesn’t have to be a networking event to make connections,” she says. Attend whatever you can, and reach out to other participants. “Be proactive,” she says. “People want to connect during this time, and networking online removes any barriers of time zone and location.”
  • Exploit the death of distance. Now that companies are more open to jobs being done remotely, even across borders, networking needs to expand its horizons too. Mohammed Ali, startup and entrepreneurial development manager at Birmingham University’s careers department, says students on the university’s Dubai campus have been attending British networking events much more than they did before the pandemic struck. In mid-November, for example, the university organised a meeting with professionals from England’s National Health Service, and 130 students took part. “It was a chance for students to look into both clinical and non-clinical roles,” says Dashi Alpion, a careers adviser who organised the event. Networking need no longer be limited by geography.
  • Choose your crowd and specialise. It makes sense to focus, says Ashley Friedlein, CEO of Guild, a two-year-old messaging platform that is an invitation-only cross between WhatsApp and LinkedIn, and where the average group size is 120. “Small is good. That’s slightly less than Dunbar’s number.” He is referring to the calculation made by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, that the number of stable relationships that individuals can meaningfully maintain is about 150. Rather than collecting followers on LinkedIn or Twitter, in short, Guild emphasises quality of connections over quantity. That is a time-honoured principle, says Lindsay O’Neill, a historian of the University of Southern California. Her book, “The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World” covered trans-Atlantic networking—by mail—in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The letters written to family and friends across the Atlantic, she says, were about “doing business, sharing information, and maintaining family ties—all the things that an early modern networker needed to do to keep his professional and personal worlds functioning.” The same is true today.
  • Whatever you do, be authentic. It’s the only way to establish trust but particularly now, says Joe Hart, CEO of Dale Carnegie & Associates, which provides training to companies and individuals in 32 languages in 86 countries, using the principles of self-presentation and relationship-building outlined in Carnegie’s 1936 book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. The pandemic forced the company to shift training online, with all the attendant difficulties of establishing trust and rapport. “People may judge you by superficial things,” says Mr Hart, who admits to a lot of personal online networking, “but the most important aspect is integrity—and it comes across online, too.”

Dig deeper: ZipRecruiter, an online-employment marketplace, offers tips and tricks for networking. LinkedIn had a pre-pandemic survey on the value of networking.

Originally published at on December 14, 2020.