Don’t let the pandemic stop you from making meaningful connections.

By Maggie Seaver
September 02, 2020
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Here’s something you may not have realized: Right now is actually a good time to network. If the idea of forging genuine professional connections in the middle of a pandemic sounds a little nuts and borderline impossible, it’s time to change your frame of mind. Just because the coronavirus has taken in-person meetings off the table doesn’t mean your need to grow as a professional has disappeared, too.

True, you can’t meet someone for coffee, drop by a networking event, or swing by someone’s office for a face-to-face conversation right now, but there are so many other ways to keep your network strong (and growing) from a distance. And the good news is, a lot of the networking advice you hear so often still holds true—it just needs a bit of a tweak to fit the current environment. Here, two career experts spill their secrets on how to use this strange virtual age to your advantage— instead of letting it stop you from making valuable connections.

Things aren’t normal right now, and that’s a fact. There’s no subtle or graceful way to introduce or ingratiate yourself like you once could in person—you just have to reach out digitally and make it count. And it’s not always going to feel organic or comfortable.

“I think it’s OK, and you should be OK knowing it’s not going to be organic,” says Tiffany Dufu, the founder and CEO of The Cru, a female-focused peer coaching service, and the author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less. “There are two things I try to remind people. The first is that you have value. The second is something my parents taught me: If you want something you’ve never had before, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before to get it. So if you’re feeling uncomfortable about the outreach, if it’s making you feel awkward, if you’re unsure if you should send [an email]—you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” 

Remember that everyone’s navigating this time together. People are much more willing and open to hear from you than you think. “Don’t be afraid or worried that you’re bothering someone,” says Lindsey Pollak, a multigenerational workplace expert and the author of Getting from College to Career and Recalculating: Navigating Your Way in the New World of Work, coming out in 2021. “It’s so hard, I remember being in that position and thinking, ‘I’m going to annoy them,’ but people aren’t getting those requests as much as you think they are.”

Counterintuitively, the social limits posed by the pandemic have, in some ways, opened doors to make networking easier. Dufu highly values networking in this moment. For one, as an introvert herself she points out there’s no pressure anymore to attend networking events, make awkward small talk, and trade business cards—a blessing for introverts everywhere. 

Secondly, there’s no need to commute to meet someone across town—or in another state. A 20-minute chat can actually be a 20-minute chat without the train ride, trying to find the meeting spot, and all the extra time spent on pleasantries (which can be value, but does eat up precious time). You can simply hop on the phone or a video call and then promptly wrap it up. (If you were really on a mission, you could probably have two or three informational interviews in an hour!)

Dufu also adds that this moment requires people to be more intentional and strategic with their outreach, which is never a bad thing. You’re no longer bantering at Starbucks or shaking hands randomly at a cocktail party; you’re sitting down to send a direct and thoughtful message. “Right now, in order to network, you need to think: What is the outcome I'm trying to achieve in reaching out to this person? You then need to know and understand, first, who’s in your network, see where the holes might be, and be more specific.”

Finally, one of the benefits to virtual networking is that it gives you more power over how you present yourself.  “You have some more control over how you come across in a way that you didn’t if you were meeting someone in a coffee shop,” Dufu says. For example, “you have control over your [Zoom] background—what very intelligent books are sitting on your shelf, whether or not there’s a bouquet of flowers.”

You also have complete command over your digital presence, including your LinkedIn profile, your email headshot, and your personal site. These virtual, personal brand moments are currently the only windows into who you are. Be empowered to use these circumstances to your advantage.

Cold calling, or more likely cold emailing someone isn’t the best idea. Instead, warm it up: Find something you have in common. Then include it to get their attention and make them care.

“Here’s the trick: Never, ever cold call (or email)—always ‘warm call,’” Pollak says. “Find a hook as to why this person should say yes to you. The easiest hook of all is that you went to the same school. I will speak to anyone who went to my alma mater—period, end of discussion. But maybe it’s that you watched their live webinar or that they’re the president of an association you belong to. It doesn’t have to be something you magically have in common, but give them a reason to say yes.” 

Any time you’re reaching out for someone’s time and guidance, you need to make it as easy for them to help you as possible. That doesn’t mean you should be a robot, but it does mean you need to be clear and concise. 

“In this virtual world everyone is so slammed with so many emails. If you help them out by telling them exactly what you’re looking for, you’re so much more likely to get the outcome you want,” Dufu says. “Give the person enough information so they can [gauge] how much of their time supporting you is going to require of them.”

Dufu recommends keeping emails to six sentences, max. “To be totally honest, if something compelling isn’t in that [email inbox preview], I may miss the message entirely,” she says. “The more text you include in the body of the message, the less likely people will be able to read it. So get to the point quickly in no more than one paragraph.” 

It's nothing personal, but since you don't have your stellar in-person charm to help you out, your email needs to speak for itself.

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This is probably a no-brainer, and few people actually make this mistake. But you should be extra-conscientious of the times. “Acknowledging the moment—that we’re basically in the midst of multiple crises right now—is just so courteous,” Dufu says. “Especially if you’re reaching out to Black people or people in the medical field, for example. Be mindful of what the person you’re reaching out to could potentially be dealing with given what’s happening in the world. Start with a human component of expressing some kind of empathy couched in gratitude.”

No need to wax poetic or tug on heartstrings. It can be as simple as: “I hope you’re well in the midst of everything happening right now, and I really appreciate you taking a look at my email.”

There’s a line between being direct and concise and being inappropriate—especially these days when people are already strapped for time (and patience). “Don’t ask for too much,” Pollak warns. Don’t attach a resume yet, don’t ask outright for a job, don’t include your manuscript.

“The best ask is either for 15 minutes of my time, or if they can send me a couple of email questions,” she says. “Now I have choices. I can do a phone call or Zoom, or I can email you. I know you’re not going to dominate my time. I know exactly what kind of advice you’re looking for, and I have a reason to say yes.”

Not every networking interaction you have needs to be such a big deal, especially in such a digital-first age. Sometimes it’s about practicing “small goods,” something Pollak picked up during her time as a LinkedIn ambassador from one of its cofounders, Reid Hoffman. And it's something that's easy to do from a distance.

A small good could be as simple as liking an article someone posted on social media or their blog; shooting someone a quick "congrats!" on landing a new role; or forwarding an article you thought would interest them. "It’s these tiny moments of affirmation and connection that don’t have to take a lot of time or effort, but say, 'I see you, I’m supporting you,'" Pollak says. “When people think about keeping in touch they think about writing a long email or having a one-hour phone call, but sometimes a small good can be really powerful and keep you in touch with people in an easy, low-pressure, but meaningful way.”

Plus, by keeping in touch in even the tiniest of ways, it won’t feel as awkward or out of the blue the next time you reach out to ask for advice, a contact, or a favor.

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