COVID-19 has transformed the way humans interact. Instead of meeting up after lectures or catching up at restaurants, we have increasingly turned to online platforms as an alternative to offline networking.
Networking refers to making connections and “nurturing relationships”. The crucial result of networking is relational capital – a resource that covers a person’s interpersonal connections with multiple stakeholders, whether they are organisations or individuals. Apart from building relational capital for an individual, networking benefits society through the “exchange of knowledge” and is quickly becoming an “important asset to companies.”
To a business student, professional networking is a no-brainer. Experienced individuals, such as Professors, have instilled in students the importance of networking as a cog in the train to success. By leveraging their connections, people can gain an unprecedented insight to industry jobs and even a potential job opportunity. According to the 2017 LinkedIn Global Survey, which was conducted among users across 17 countries, 80% of respondents considered professional networking “to be important to career success.” In fact, 70% of surveyed professionals were hired at a company where they had a connection. Clearly, networking gives unexperienced students a leg-up.
Prior to COVID-19, networking advice often revolved around face-to-face meetings. On one hand, networking could be more personal such as inviting an established alumni to a quick chat over coffee. On the other hand, students could participate in networking events. For example, Bocconi University has hosted numerous events such as seminars with company representatives. These in- person conversations enable us to achieve unwavering engagement; there is no option to switch tabs or work on an essay. Through engagement, face-to-face interactions provide a robust foundation to connect and build empathy.
Following COVID-19, networking has shifted online. Now, in-person conversations are limited by the uncertainty of changing restrictions. Previous networking activities now take place through virtual
event platforms that may only have chat and video call functions. With such a dramatic change, is it possible for networking to remain similarly effective?
According to organisational consultant Korn Ferry, there are three important points for effective virtual networking: preparation, giving instead of receiving, and patience.
Video calls can still “be authentic” with appropriate preparation. In addition to normal conversational groundwork, such as potential questions, Korn Ferry advises people to check the technological side. Before the call, students should double check the video call platform and the internet connection to ensure all things technology are running smoothly. This preparation ensures that we can be “at ease during the call.” With technology safely set aside, the conversation can proceed just as an offline one, allowing our authenticity and engagement to shine through.
During the pandemic, giving takes precedence over receiving. COVID-19 has affected people negatively by disrupting the status quo. We can demonstrate that we care for a person’s situation and wish for their well-being through giving. To demonstrate this, Korn Ferry recommends making a list of “the possible things” we can do for people in our network. These “things” could be as little as highlighting a project a connection has produced. If done sincerely, these small but certain actions can steer connections away from feeling transactional.
With a fluctuating number of COVID-19 cases, there is much uncertainty that extends to our inter- personal relationships. People may miss scheduled meetings to handle unforeseen tasks. To combat this uncertainty, patience is of utmost importance. Our willingness to wait for a missed conversation demonstrates to the person that we value their input, time, and by extension, our existing connection. Patience is also helpful to us personally; it places us in a positive mentality that “sets [us] up for a pleasant surprise if someone gets back quickly.”
There is a common aspect to all three tips: empathy. Before the coronavirus, empathy played a role in facilitating authentic relationship building. These days, empathy is more important than ever.
With limited tools and environments to convey concern and understanding, we have to communicate our ability to engage and empathise in unique ways. Networking during social distancing? Not a problem for Bocconi students.