Long before 2020 hit, I was working in the virtual space. During the years I spent as a consultant and manager, I worked with clients across the US and the world, many of whom I’ve still never met in person.
Even now in my coaching practice, there are many clients I know solely in the virtual space. This means that we met virtually, developed a deep, meaningful connection virtually, and continue to accomplish great work together…you guessed it…virtually.
I’ve read a few articles now about how the rise of virtual work is killing networking and professional connections. While I understand the perspective, I have a hard time embracing the sentiment given my personal experience.
Yes, the online space can exacerbate the awkwardness associated with networking. And while there are many aspects of connecting virtually that feel more disconnected – there are also benefits, that when leveraged, can form deeper more meaningful connections.
Here are a few of the tips I’ve picked up along the way…
Always include a call to action
This is a general networking tip that has become so much more important in the virtual landscape.
All of us have been on the giving or receiving end of the “We should catch up” email. The email is sent. Weeks and months pass. But, a meeting never actually occurs.
In the past, maybe this didn’t bother you so much. Maybe there was a chance you might run into this person out and about. But now that chance is diminished.
Here’s the thing – the more virtual the communication, the more direction it needs.
Once you hit send, your piece of the interaction is over and you have no control over when or how the other person will read your message. You are relying on the words you sent to compel the other person to respond with action.
If you are trying to set up a meeting, especially if it is a networking meeting, it is imperative that your note include a call to action. This could look something like:
“Do you have some time this week to speak? Let me know.”
“Let me know,” is the most simple and effective call to action there is, and yes it makes a huge difference. Without it, you have simply posed a question. With it, you have signaled to the other person what they need to do once they answer that question.
If you haven’t been getting responses to your networking emails, try it out and let me know how it goes.
You’re a busy person. You have hours of meetings, endless emails to get through, and deadlines to meet.
In an in-person meeting, if you were to whip out your inbox and start checking emails while a person was sitting across from you speaking, you would likely be seen as rude.
However, in the safety of your own home you start to wonder – “Maybe I can become a multi-tasking wizard and finally feel on top of everything.”
So, you are in a phone or video meeting, but you also have other browsers and their alerts open where you can see them. Your inbox, your Facebook, your slack channel, that article you were reading before the call – they are all lurking in your periphery.
The thing is, just because you can always be logged on to the world now, doesn’t mean you should – especially if you are actively interacting with another human.
First of all, it’s still considered rude, even if the other person or people can’t see what you’re doing. Secondly, it’s exhausting, since you’re requiring your brain to constantly be on alert and juggle stimulation from multiple sources.
Most importantly – it totally robs you of the human connection component of the conversation you’re in.
Yes, connecting virtually with someone does require a little more effort to establish a connection. However, if you are keeping your whole virtual life up in the background while connecting with them, you are putting in all of the effort and reaping almost none of the reward. So, minimize (literally) those screens and distractions and focus on the conversation you’re having.
***If your work from home situation includes unavoidable distractions such as children, this may not be as possible for you. If there is a high likelihood that you could be interrupted, simply be up front about that possibility. You’re juggling a lot in less than ideal circumstances. People will understand.***
Mind your senses
Sometimes video meetings are great. They allow us to share screens, gather multiple people, easily record the conversation, and see the face of the person we are talking to.
However, if the goal of my call with someone is to establish or further a connection with them, I prefer telephone.
The best example I have for why this is comes from my career as a performer.
Ideally, when you’re playing music in an ensemble, you can clearly see your fellow musicians and easily follow their visual cues.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, this isn’t possible. So you adjust.
With the absence of one sense (sight), you become hyper aware in your listening and even develop a peripheral sensitivity to the breath and movements of the people around you. When this goes well, it’s a feeling of total interconnectedness. It almost feels like you’re physically sitting in the seats of all of your fellow musicians simultaneously.
It’s the same thing with phone calls vs video calls. Sometimes, it’s great to see people when you speak to them. However, sometimes it can distract you from listening deeply. The assumption that the addition of more senses automatically allows us to make our conversations more meaningful is simply incorrect.
Without worrying about the visual aspect of the conversation, you are freed to listen more closely and be “in” the conversation more. Plus you give yourself a break from that constant state of zoom fatigue.
Have a strong (virtual) handshake
When two people meet for the first time, someone tends to instantly emerge as the leader of the interaction. The leader is the one who confidently approaches you first. They have a firm handshake. They guide you to your destination. They let the hostess know that you need a table for two.
There is an inherent safety in this subtle physical leadership that gives both participants the opportunity to settle into the conversation and feel secure.
While the physical component is not present online, there are certainly ways to lead a conversation or first interaction entirely with your voice that creates the same sense of security.
One thing I’ve noticed is that people typically have their first question prepared for the conversation ahead, but rarely are people prepared to deliver their first personal contribution.
You might hop on the phone and ask someone emphatically, “How are you?”
They respond, “I’m great, how are you doing?”
You say, “Great!”
And then…. crickets. And because you’re online, the crickets sound more like sirens screaming *awkward*awkward*awkward* in your ear.
The remedy for this is to be prepared to contribute something personal or substantial when you’re asked a question, especially at the beginning of a conversation.
When they ask “How are you doing?” you might respond, “I’m great! I just went to my favorite coffee place to pick up my favorite coffee, and I know it’s such a small thing, but I feel like a new person!”
This small share on your part allows the other person to settle it, relate to you, and come up with a pertinent response or question. It adds space, structure, and security. And its 1000% less awkward.
In my personal experience, networking virtually doesn’t have to mean a death sentence for relationship cultivation and human connection. Rather, the more you focus on cultivating clarity and presence in your online interactions, the more your network (online and offline) will thrive.
*Originally posted on lisahusseini.com