Financial adviser Sharon Mattheus on the importance of creating strong networks as we come out of lockdown
Anyone who is in business will know the value of building strong networks of contacts; working relationships are the oil which lubricates the free flow of commerce.
Because in the end, all business is about people interacting with other people, and however much technology develops, that basic fact of human nature will never change.
The past year has been a difficult one for networking. Zoom, Teams and the rest are okay as far as they go, and they can be useful tools for maintaining existing relationships (up to a point); but they don’t enable you to ‘bump into’ new people, or to start the kind of conversation you might have over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
This is another way that the Covid pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on the younger generation. Those starting out on their careers in the past year have had little opportunity to start to build the relationships on which their career will depend.
As we cautiously emerge from lockdown, building – or rebuilding – these networks will be a key priority for all serious businesspeople. And yet we are a long way off returning to the kind of big networking events which existed pre-Covid, and we may indeed never return to them.
So what will networking look like in the coming months, and how can we start to escape the cosy but ultimately impersonal embrace of the online video call?
It’s clear that we won’t entirely be free of the dreaded video call. We have adapted and changed our behaviour, and a proportion of our interactions will continue to be with a face on a screen. So perhaps the first thing we need to learn is how to maximise that opportunity, and solve the shortcomings of not being face-to-face with someone, with all of the subtle body language and visual clues which make such encounters so useful.
There are a number of ways we can do this:
- Learn to use the software: platforms are constantly adding useful new features, so keep up to date with developments.
- Present yourself well: ensure your profile is labelled with your name correctly, your background is tidy and professional, and that you are dressed in a way which you would do if meeting someone in person.
- Engage fully: turn off any other screens and devices, shut the door, and give the video call your full attention. You wouldn’t check your emails while talking to someone face-to-face, and it’s just as rude to do it when talking to them on a video call.
- Be proactive: it’s tempting to treat a Zoom conference like a TV programme, passively watching it, but that is not networking. Introduce yourself in the chat box, determine to play an active role, respond to questions. You want people to remember you, and that means taking part.
- Follow up: connect with people you have spoken to on LinkedIn, suggest a follow-up one-to-one call, or even a follow-up discussion group involving a small number of those who attended the original call.
All of this will make your online networking more effective – but there is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face, and as Covid recedes, we will all have to learn how to do this again.
The big formal networking events may not restart for some time, but you should regard any social event as an opportunity to expand your networks. I have one business contact who is a member of a wine club, and claims this has provided more and better work relationships than any number of ‘networking events’.
If you enjoy doing something, whether it’s five-a-side football or amateur dramatics, you will be more motivated to do it. And breaking the ice with the people you meet there will be much easier, because you already have something in common.
As society opens up again, the networking opportunities will lie wherever people congregate, so it will be important to seek these out and ensure you are part of them.
Commentators keep talking about the ‘new normal’, as if Covid will have changed everything. But while some of the shifts in behaviour that the pandemic has brought about may well become permanent, the basics of human relationships haven’t changed at all. In the end we are social beings, and the only way to build trusted relationships is face-to-face. We are going to have to get back out there and meet.
-- Sharon Mattheus is a financial adviser at Lovewell Blake Financial Planning, based at the firm’s Bury St Edmunds office on Hillside Business Park.