Covid-19 has triggered a massive shift in work practices. Given these changes in the world of work, we sought to understand how people interact and develop relations online because the overall benefits of networking are tremendous.
Key learnings from the study are:
Networking is still building, maintaining and using relationships: All three elements remain important. Building is the most challenging in an online environment.
Online interaction amplifies and reduces networking elements: The online environment has decoupled traditional networking into separate task and relationship activities.
Behavioral and referral cues signal trust: Listening and information sharing signal trust in building internal relations. Referrals and LinkedIn signal trust when building external relations.
Follow a staged networking approach. Previously, often the first networking activity was to meet face to face. The new best practice is to meet one or a few times virtually, so that a face to face meeting can focus on building relationships and discussing complex topics.
Design the workplace to include task and relationship activities. Maintain task efficiency online combined with specific relationship building activities both online and offline.
Online and hybrid networking are here to stay. The research results described in the following pages propose best practice suggestions to build a networking strategy for this new environment
Regardless of the pandemic, we found that networking is defined in line with past research related to offline networking. For some individuals networking is about meeting new people, while for others it is about maintaining and using relationships that are beneficial for both parties. People network for reasons that are emotional and/or personal (connect for human interaction) as well as professional and/or instrumental (exchange ideas, explore business opportunities). Respondents made these observations about networking to illustrate the networking process. “[…] networking for me is any real human relationship. It can be because anybody can bring you directly or indirectly, to the people that you need to meet, so it can be for me, that private and professional is the same thing because at the end it's a relationship between two humans or more.” “So, for me, networking is maintaining the network but also developing a network, as if you were developing a muscle even further. For the maintenance of contact, it’s mostly with my business partners, being consultants with whom I usually partner up for large projects, but also clients of course and any other useful contact professionally. For the developing part, it’s mostly new clients that I’m looking for, usually under the form of recommendations, so I really chase or hunt down clients I’m usually being recommended, and this is the second purpose of networking for me. So, it keeps the business rolling.”
In an online interaction, some elements are amplified, and others are reduced. Online interaction increases task efficiency. We get things done with no travel time, little cost, and less dispensed energy. Who hasn’t scheduled back-to-back meetings like a military bootcamp training, jumping in and jumping out of sessions? Yet, this comes at the expense of relationship building due to lower levels of interaction, a greater propensity for distraction, and difficulties to read nonverbal body language. Communication becomes sequential and asynchronous as people wait and take turns to speak (raise hands, unmute, and mute) and impacts the intensity, frequency, and duration of interaction. This linear way of interaction coupled with a waiting time to speak also favors distraction (e.g., checking emails, navigating websites). We are physically present and cognitively absent which affects building relations. In an online setting, we miss capturing the entire palette of nonverbal body language that is key to recognize the attitudes and emotions of others that help develop relations. On the other hand, online interaction amplifies self-development because there are greater learning opportunities with accessibility to worldwide webinars. We can participate and learn anything, anytime, and anywhere as there are no geographical boundaries. There is flexibility in terms of reach within a context that is fixed in advance. At the same time, the flexibility in terms of serendipitous encounters practically disappears because uninvited people cannot jump in into online meetings or gatherings. and reduces networking elements.
Clearly the big loser in online interaction is the relational aspect. Is there something we can do about improving this? It seems that in an online interaction certain cues signal that we can trust the other person.
Related to internal relations (those with people inside your company), we found that prosocial behaviors cues such as active listening and openly sharing information relate positively to benevolence-based trust (“I trust you because I believe that you care about me.”), which in turn facilitates internal network building.
Prior to Covid, often the first networking activity was to meet face to face. Experience working online has demonstrated that a face to face meeting may be more effective later in the process. Initial meetings can take place online, which are more efficient in terms of time and ability to focus on the task. Face to face meetings can take place later in the process when more complex subjects need to be discussed and both parties are ready to build the relationship.
Recognizing that work and networking have become decoupled, companies should design a workplace that integrates the different elements of online interactions and normalize them. Companies should maintain the task efficiency of the online interaction and encourage selfdevelopment. For example, a company could create a regularly updated platform and enlist worldwide expert webinars that employees could access easily.
More importantly, however, is that companies should create opportunities with the specific purpose of relationship building. In an offline interaction, task and relationship building are integrated in one activity. In an online interaction, task takes over relationship building, and these are no longer integrated in the work activity. Companies must intentionally design spaces or activities, both online and offline, to ensure that their employees are able to build these crucial relations.