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Online Networking

How to make professional connections remotely and why it matters.

On paper, networking is a relatively simple task.  Mingle with like-minded professionals while sipping wine and you greatly increase your chances of landing a coveted role or building your dream career.

Pre-COVID, gearing up for a networking event, you would probably have walked into a venue, thinking, “Smile, remember your elevator pitch – if all else fails, talk about the weather.”

Now, many of us are faced with a slightly different predicament: How to network while working remotely.  Operating out of makeshift home offices, with children demanding tea or pets stepping on keyboards, we have collectively become BBC Dad, aka Robert Kelly.  The Busan-based political scientist famously went viral in 2017 when his children interrupted a live interview he was doing on television, and his wife had to scramble to get them out of his office.

As tricky a situation as it might be to meet people in such circumstances, research shows that rising to the challenge is worth it.  According to one online survey, networking accounts for up to 85% of all filled vacancies.  It can also lead to substantial pay rises, as evidenced by a recent story of how one employee secured a £24 000 (R480 000) pay rise solely through networking.

In early 2022, 44% of young people used social media to look for career information – up from just 19% a decade ago – and 42% consulted their social networks when looking to make a career decision.

Why networking is critical to success

Networking underpins two key aspects of professional advancement: employability and self-directed career development.

Employability pertains to what economists refer to as the human capital of a potential employee – their external marketability and the relative value of their educational background, technical skills, and soft skills (e.g. communication, time management, and creativity) on the job market.  Networking makes your human capital readily apparent to employers and encourages them to hire you.

Self-directed career development is an ongoing personal development project where you seek career information and take action towards long-term career goals.  Networking is a crucial means for obtaining career information which helps you to raise your personal aspirations and to determine whether a particular job, company, or sector is right for you. The experiences of people already working in a profession of interest to you can be helpful in gauging whether it would be a good fit.

Networking also helps to build relationships with mentors and role models and gives you access to peer support communities and professional groups.  This is about more than just securing a job.  It creates a sense of belonging and professional identity, and so doing develops what social scientists term ‘social capital’ – shared norms, values, and beliefs in professional communities.

How to network online

Remote working has seen video conferencing become the norm.  Online networking events are now routinely held on platforms like EventBrite, Slack, Yammer, and Instagram live.

So, first, do your research.  Identify the organisations, associations, and causes of most interest to you.  Find the blogs and forums that are relevant to your field of work and sign up to as many mailing lists as you can efficiently handle.  Find your people and follow them on social media.

The goal of this step is to increase the volume of information that you receive passively.  This creates what is known as environmental affordance – the possibility for action afforded to you by your environment.  The more regularly you receive updates about relevant events, the more likely you are to attend them.

Secondly, be strategic.  In a world where conference dinners and impromptu water cooler conversations have been replaced by Zoom catchups, things aren’t as spontaneous as they were before.  Scheduling is key.

Create a personal networking plan.  Decide how much time you are going to devote to online networking and note down your goals – how many people you want to speak to; which companies you want to find out more about; and the specific people you need to seek out to discuss specific topics.

Make sure you schedule in time to maintain your online presence and opt for a variety of engagements such as webinars, online recruitment fairs, one-on-one Zoom meetings, and online conferences.

Third, be proactive. Research shows that the most prolific networkers possess proactive personality traits and are likely to score high on extraversion (a trait associated with being outgoing and seeking out new experiences) in personality tests. That does not mean that you have to be an extravert to succeed at networking, but being proactive is a way to replicate this kind of behaviour, which is the strongest predictor of networking success.

If there is a specific person or group of professionals with whom you would like to build a relationship, get in touch with them directly.  Email them, message them on LinkedIn, set up a Zoom meeting, or research the online networking mixers they might join.

Lastly, be prepared. Networking involves several skills – approaching others, finding common ground, maintaining relationships, etc. – that can be practised and learned.

Of these, listening is perhaps the most important.  Express an interest in other people’s work and ask them questions and you’ll be well on your way to making meaningful connections that do not only benefit you as an individual, but that bolster knowledge exchange and collective problem-solving, ultimately benefitting your professional community!

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE).

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