Whether you’re job hunting or looking to build long-term professional relationships, networking remains essential.
But how do you expand your circle when in-person conferences are canceled, and you can no longer ask someone out for a coffee or lunch meeting?
While many of the traditional, in-person business connection principles apply to networking from home, the latter has unique pitfalls — and opportunities.
Speaking with business professionals and experts from the USC Marshall School of Business, we identified tactics to help you advance your career and access a broader range of contacts remotely than you ever could in person.
Embrace Networking from Home — It’s Here to Stay
The way we connect with others has fundamentally shifted due to COVID-19, and many of those changes will endure after the pandemic ends.
“We will never return to the world we knew before,” said Jolanta Aritz, PhD, professor of clinical business communication at USC Marshall. She notes a recent survey of corporate executives shows that half of them anticipate the post-pandemic workplace remaining fully remote or a hybrid — with some employees working exclusively from home or only coming to the office part time.
“But if you think about it from a different angle, the opportunities of connecting to people are broader,” she said. “Chances are, you won’t be geographically bound to a certain location. It makes global connection a lot simpler.”
Her USC Marshall colleague Peter Cardon, PhD, academic director of the MBA for Professionals and Managers, agreed.
“We’re going to be in a permanently blended world,” he told USC Online. “You can actually access more people in a virtual environment. Usually, you’re limited to finding people who you could meet for lunch, and now the only limitation is if you’re in different time zones — and even then you can figure it out.”
“It’s amazing how this has just blown the doors wide open for cross-pollination across geographies,” added Miriam Burgos, academic director of the USC Marshall Online MBA program.
After people can socialize safely again, online conferences and Zoom chats will remain good starting points for building your network, even for those who live near you, Cardon noted.
“I think people have just gotten used to how convenient it is,” he said.
Aritz added that it’s easier to request an informational interview over Zoom than to ask someone to commit to meeting for lunch, or even coffee.
“They’re losing 30 minutes instead of half a day,” she said.
Network with Peers, Not Just Pros
With geographic barriers being eliminated, you should also expand your networking channels. Look to your peers (and not just professionals) who are further along with their careers.
“There’s a tendency to think mostly about how to get a job, especially among college students,” said Cardon, who is also the author of Business Communication: Developing Leaders for a Networked World.
“That’s important. But those who are really savvy realize that it’s their peers who will be their most important network in five years,” he said. “Get involved with as many groups as you can because you need to have access to a lot of different people and professional opportunities and build relationships in a wide range of places. You can do all of that virtually.”
Cardon noted that most conferences and career fairs have moved online and, for students, there are even more opportunities to mingle at events sponsored by student clubs and groups.
If you do attend an online conference, use the chat boxes and find ways to follow up with one another, he added.
While networking from home, you should also aim to join professional associations and attend their events.
“Get plugged into your alumni association,” Burgos said. “Most offer a wealth of events all over the world that you can attend from home. The opportunities really are endless.”
Cardon echoed the recommendation to get involved in your alumni network: “One of the main reasons people should go to school is to get into these really powerful professional networks.”
Leverage Existing Networks — or Create New Ones
Online professional platforms, such as LinkedIn, were strong before the pandemic, and they’re likely to play an even more important role moving forward.
“LinkedIn is a model of opportunity for connection, not only with alumni from your institution, but also with individuals across industries and functions,” said Mark Brostoff, assistant dean and director of USC Marshall’s Graduate Career Services.
Aritz said she expects LinkedIn to “explode in terms of connecting opportunities.” She also anticipates that professional associations and other groups with an online presence focused mostly on providing information will add more virtual networking opportunities to the mix.
How can you make the most out of LinkedIn?
“My first piece of advice is ‘use the filters, people!’ They’re incredibly powerful to narrow down a very targeted network of people to reach out to through InMail,” Burgos shared.
In addition to leveraging existing platforms, you can always create your own.
“Take charge and don’t be afraid to organize events yourself on topics that interest you, then publicize the event and the link using your existing network,” Burgos suggested. “Just see who comes. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
Make It Personal
Both Aritz and Cardon suggested fostering a personal connection rather than just targeting alumni from your institution or professionals from your field.
“There are a couple of good ways you can use LinkedIn effectively so it doesn’t look like a cold call that gets ignored,” Aritz said. “Ask people to make an introduction on your behalf or, when you message people, identify a common interest or connection.”
When reaching out, remember to keep a sense of etiquette top of mind.
“People are more accessible than ever in an online world. You can always ask if someone is willing to do an informational interview, but it’s more powerful if you can connect via an intermediary who actually knows that person,” Cardon noted.
Keep It Professional
Even experienced professionals are dressing more casually during the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean you should follow suit when you’re trying to make a first impression.
“Think carefully about your appearance when you go to online events where you don’t know people very well yet,” Cardon said. “It needs to be business casual at a minimum. If you’re at a career fair, it needs to be better than that.”
“When you’re looking at each other on a Zoom call, it turns into a much more professional level of communication than a conversation over the phone,” Brostoff noted. “It raises the bar. Companies have figured out they can absolutely tell a lot about a candidate from their presence in a Zoom meeting.”
In addition to your attire, pay attention to your background and eliminate noise as much as possible.
“You can set yourself apart if you have a really interesting background — not noisy or cluttered, but something interesting,” Cardon added. “A nice piece of art makes a difference, as does good lighting. Or you could try finding a pretty spot outdoors. Wherever you are, a good headset cuts out a lot of background noise.”
If you don’t have a lot of experience in professional settings in the virtual realm, it’s a good idea to practice in advance.
“Before you get into high-stakes situations, get used to your equipment and to having longer conversations online,” Cardon said. “Practice with roommates, family members or friends. University career centers, like USC Marshall, are letting people practice their interviews online. That’s very worthwhile. Some online platforms let you practice in a solo environment where you respond to questions and even get automated feedback.”
Build Virtual Competence
Since people and companies have become so reliant on virtual connectivity, those who seek jobs in the future will be expected to master new competencies, according to Brostoff.
“Online connectivity and a professional online presence are going to be added to the mix of how talent will be evaluated moving forward,” he said.
Aritz believes that we will continue to build these skills by networking with global virtual teams, which are “going to become a reality much more so than before.”
Be a Giver, Not a Taker
While some things have changed dramatically, many fundamentals have remained the same.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make with networking is adopting a taker’s mentality,” Cardon said. “The people who are really great at networking have a whole different set of motivations. They think like contributors, they have a giver’s mentality — and opportunities spontaneously emerge … There’s no doubt the ones who see themselves as givers in their networks end up gaining the most opportunities over time.”
Similarly, Burgos suggested volunteering to counsel others: “Mentor undergraduates, mentor individuals who want to shift into your own industry, mentor prospective students even,” she said. “That organically broadens your network. And all of this can be done from home.”
And don’t forget to follow up informational interviews and other support with a thank you.
“Never rule out the value of handwritten cards, even in a virtual environment,” Cardon advised. “Sending a little note is a touch of personality that is unique and valued, and it stands out.”
Learn more about the online MBA program at USC Marshall today.