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How to Network During the Pandemic, According to Experts

By Jessica Militare

There’s no downplaying the economic ripple effects of the pandemic: Millions of Americans are unemployed, and women are being most affected by job loss. “This pandemic has hit Black women, Latina women, anyone who’s a caregiver, and moms super hard,” says Cynthia Pong, feminist career strategist and author of Don’t Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color. “And if you’re feeling like you need to project this ‘I’ve got it all under control’ facade, you don’t. It’s absolutely okay to ask for help.” 

Collectively, we’re dealing with a lot of unknowns. One thing in your control right now, though, is turning to your network for support. Whether you recently lost work, are currently job hunting, or are reevaluating your career path, here are some ways to nurture and expand your professional circle right now.

First, Let’s Address the Discomfort of Networking During COVID

It’s not uncommon to feel nervous about asking for help or a favor during such a difficult time, especially if you’re worried about coming across as insensitive. Try to re-frame that thinking. Dr. Dawn Graham, author of Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers and Seize Success, suggests that the COVID pandemic has actually presented a good opportunity for networking. “More people are wanting to connect right now because they’re feeling so isolated,” she says. “It’s a great time to reconnect with people you lost touch with because life got busy.” 

It’s also normal to be feeling discouraged or overwhelmed about putting yourself out there. Most of us are feeling delicate right now. To make networking easier, don’t look at the mountain of things you need to do or challenges you’re facing. “Instead, say, what’s one step I can take today?” says Dr. Graham. “For some people that might be reaching out to somebody on LinkedIn, and for others, it might just be taking a shower.” But if all that you can get done today is a shower, maybe tomorrow you can compose an email. There’s nothing wrong with moving at your own pace. Just don’t give up.

Redefine Networking as Reciprocal  

It can also help to stop seeing networking as transactional, and to start thinking of it as generative. No matter the dynamic, networking doesn’t have to be one-sided. Don’t underestimate how you can help someone. “A lot of women of color, especially if they’re younger, think they have nothing to offer,” Pong says. “But that’s not true. You can ask, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you right now?’ Maybe they have a post on LinkedIn you can amplify.” A networking call can be beneficial for both parties. “People love to talk about themselves and feel helpful,” Pong points out. “Right there you’re giving the person something.”

Other helpful talking points to make the interaction feel reciprocal, per Dr. Graham: “You want to ask, how are they doing? How have they been handling things? Is there anything they need? It’s always nice to offer.” 

Keep it short and respectful 

Especially at a time when it’s been difficult for many of us to focus, Pong recommends keeping outreach messages brief. Include who you are, why you want to connect, and give a meeting timeframe. And Dr. Graham suggests setting up shorter meetings. “It’s hard to say no to 15 minutes, whether Zoom or a phone call,” she says. If you haven’t spoken in a while or you don’t know the person well, giving them the option to schedule something at a later date will show sensitivity to the moment, too. 

Don’t Forget the Power of Your Immediate Circle 

You might not have to look that far to make the connections you want: Networking can start closer to home. As Dr. Graham said in her 2019 Tedx Talk, “Real networking is simply having a different conversation with the people you already know.” We typically give vague answers when family or friends ask about work; Dr. Graham says to push past the small talk and get specific about jobs, projects, or people you want to connect with. 

“The people you already know have great information or contacts, and will be helpful in a way that you probably never even realized,” she says. “Getting a job is social activity. It’s not viewed that way, but when most people review how they’ve landed jobs, it’s a referral or tip from a friend.” So don’t be shy about having new kinds of conversations with people who you’re already familiar with. 

Be Flexible About Which Platform You Use

As life during COVID continues, part of networking means being aware that your contact may be Zoomed out (and you may be, too!). Amy Nguyen, career strategist and founder of Happiness Infinity LLC, suggests saying that you’re fine with any kind of call when you reach out to someone.“It shows that you respect the person and how they prefer to communicate,” Nguyen explains. Maybe they’d prefer a voice call, or to answer questions over email. 

“We don’t have to get on a Zoom call to network,” she adds. “We just have to be creative and expand what networking means now.” That could mean following someone’s social accounts, reading their newsletter, or commenting on their posts. Keeping in touch digitally can help set you up for a future coffee date when it’s safe to meet in person again. 

Try not to take it personally if someone says no to your networking request. “Maybe what you’re trying to achieve is not aligned with their mission,” says Nguyen. Particularly right now, they might not be in the best frame of mind to talk. Grant them the same grace you’d give a friend — and then pick yourself up and try again, even if it’s a few months down the road.