Neil Johnson, journalist

‘I think you’re on mute.’ ‘Can anyone hear me?’ ‘Oh my, look at that bookshelf – aren’t we scholarly!’ ‘Oops, they think they’ve got their camera turned off.’ ‘Nice outfit!’

Does any of that sound familiar? For the many of us who have had to quickly adapt to remote working and video calls, it probably does.

They are familiar phrases for virtual networkers too, for whom the tech, home decor and sartorial risks are potentially higher. Yet Covid-19 pandemic responses have arguably made networking and networks more vital than ever.

Online means we can actually broaden our networking and widen our support systems, which can only be a good thing

Productivity boost

‘Just because we aren’t working in the same way as before doesn’t mean we don’t need to network and make new connections,’ says Natalie Trice, a PR coach and university lecturer.

‘Online means we can actually broaden our networking and widen our support systems, which can only be a good thing,’ she adds. ‘It might take a while to get used to the format, but with no travel time, no long lunchtime sessions and being able to sit down in your own office, it can be a time-saving experience as well.’

Importantly, given the current state of affairs, it can also provide group therapy, says Joanne Dewberry, a Sage Business Expert, blogger and author of Networking A Successful Small Business. A career network represents ‘a group of people you can turn to for support, advice, celebration and in some cases friendship’, she says.

Networking is also a productivity booster as it makes you accountable, she continues. ‘Once we commit to another human, we get things done. Making myself accountable to others through virtual networking has been a key step for my small business during lockdown and beyond.’

Losses and gains

A big concern with networking virtually is the loss of face-to-face interaction and all it brings – the buzz of being around others, body language and more easily followable cues.

But there is still plenty to be gained from connecting online.

Angharad Salazar Llewellyn, founder of The Flex Network, has had to take all her events online. ‘There’s a challenge in how to recreate the same buzz and atmosphere when connecting via a computer screen, but it also opens up my events to a huge new audience.’

For Llewellyn, networking is about what you give, not what you get. ‘As soon as you look at it through this lens, it completely changes your perspective. Forget the days of stuffy events where you shove a business card in someone’s hand and run out of the door.’

Indeed, networking virtually still enables you to build on and develop relationships, meet new people and ultimately get your name out there, says Dewberry. ‘And don’t just rely on formal events organised by networking groups – seek out Facebook groups, connect on Twitter, go “old-school” and give someone a call. Networking is about being proactive.’

Inclusive spaces

Virtual networking should also make for a more comfortable playing field for those lacking confidence or the more introverted.

‘It is different from real-life networking, so if you aren’t great in those situations, it can be a fantastic way to build your confidence as well as your connections,’ Trice says.

Jon Baker, a coach who specialises in introversion in business, says that while introverts may be expected to prefer virtual networking, the process can be very tiring, with the absence of non-verbal cues requiring additional listening effort.

‘However, those who are gaining the most from the switch to virtual networking are doing more one-to-one meetings, where their personality does come over more strongly,’ he says.

Shola Kaye, a communication consultant and inclusion speaker, thinks online meetings have been a ‘massive boon’ for diversity and inclusion. ‘In the early days of my career I had problems speaking up in meetings, feeling like I was the only black woman and the only introvert, and really struggling to have my voice heard. If the me of then was in today’s working environment, I think I’d feel freed up to comment more.’

The chat and messaging functions in video call and conferencing platforms have been a revelation. ‘In a big meeting online you can put comments in the chat and they’re treated with as much weight as everybody else’s,’ says Kaye. ‘I and some clients have found using the chat on Zoom liberating.’

And women are finding they’ve got more of a voice online, according to Kaye. ‘People aren’t looking at them, there’s less embarrassment and fear, their meeting is less likely to be hijacked by someone with a loud voice or an agenda, it’s more egalitarian.’

Comfort zone

‘Lockdown has forced people to confront networking differently,’ Baker says. ‘Many have survived lockdown from the increased referrals they’ve gained through a targeted virtual networking strategy.

‘Good networking is not the same as attending networking events. Good networking is about working on relationships with the people most able to put you in contact with your dream client. Lockdown has helped, as more people are now comfortable with virtual one-to-one meetings.’

Online conferences and virtual events can be a great way to get industry insights, Trice says, with more time to ask questions and speakers often more generous. ‘Go into it with an open mind and you might be pleasantly surprised at how well this does actually work,’ she suggests.