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Home >Opinion >Columns >There’s a premium on networking in pandemic times

The lockdown and work-from-home routine has led to increased virtual camaraderie, professionally and personally, right? That’s what many of us have experienced. Then what explains increasing reports of depression and stress among employees? After all, didn’t Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman find that people enjoy socialising with others most relaxing? But here’s the thing: it depends on who we interact with. Friends, relatives and the significant other, yes. Professional acquaintances? Not so much. Research makes it clear why people don’t network professionally as much as they should: they just don’t like it.

Is that counter-intuitive? One study of public servants observed that network-building behaviours were related to the accumulation of social capital, which in turn affected the speed of promotion. A longitudinal study found that networking intensity had a positive correlation both with one’s current salary and its growth over time.

In the best of circumstances, professional networking is rather demanding. Doing it remotely, after a day filled with Zoom meetings, seems like too much. Notwithstanding people’s discomfort, organizational life, even in a post-covid world, is premised on and filled with interpersonal relationships. Evidence shows that networking is essential to career success, but it doesn’t have to be so effortful. Here are some tips for it.

One, spend the time. The more you do it, the more you’ll like it. Networking expert Ivan Misner concludes that people should spend 8-10 hours a week on professionally-relevant relationships. Figure out who you need to meet to advance your career, make a list, and determine how you are going to connect with them and what you’d like to talk about when you do. We tend to enjoy what we’re good at. Many people say that what feels uncomfortable and unnatural initially, like networking, becomes more pleasant and easier over time. A schedule packed with remote meetings must make space for your long-range goals, too.

Two, cultivate a large number of weak ties. Sociologist Mark Granovetter said that people tended to find jobs through people with whom they had only weak ties, those they may have met casually once or twice, seen infrequently, or were casual acquaintances. This may be because those closer to us are likely to have the same information and contacts, whereas those who are relatively distant tend to have a non-overlapping span.

Three, reach out to people from diverse industries and geographies. Just as diversification is good for a financial portfolio, knowing a diverse group of people with varied interests and backgrounds is professionally useful. One could create a rolodex of contacts even without face-to-face interactions. People need ideas for the covid crisis, and will appreciate your sharing of information and insights.

Four, seek out those who can play brokerage or link roles. It’s beneficial to bring together individuals who could profit from mutual interaction. For instance, it’s useful for venture capitalists, social actors and those with technology and business ideas to connect. Just as investment bankers link entities that need capital with those that have capital to invest, one can help build bridges that serve a good purpose. According to sociologist Ronald Burt, brokerage across structural gaps between groups can reveal options that otherwise go unseen, which is the mechanism by which this role generates social capital. This translates into career success, in part because brokers, thanks to their diverse connections, tend to have good ideas. Burt’s research offers an important insight: network position matters. People who bridge groups, either within or across organizations, have an advantage in their job performance and careers.

Networking isn’t a personality characteristic, it’s a behaviour, and it can be learnt. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that all networking skills can be picked up even if you identify yourself as an introvert. Burt and a colleague conducted a field experiment in which they educated some executives in a company on building social capital and analysing network structures. In a comparison of the subsequent careers of people who had attended the programme with those who hadn’t, the duo found that the former were 36-42% more likely to receive top performance evaluations, 43-72% more likely to be promoted (an effect that rose over time), and 42-74% more likely to be retained by their companies. These skills, thus, are teachable.

Of course, it is harder to put these learned skills into practice during a pandemic or crisis. People do not bump into others at conventions, for example, since these have gone virtual. The implication? People need to be even more strategic in their networking activities, whether Zoom has induced a coma or not.

What could once be left to chance can no longer be. Networking needs to be even more intentional. Not just for one’s career, but for personal happiness and well-being. And it is likely that social capital will become even more valuable in an environment where success at this endeavour is harder to achieve. That only makes the lessons of networking even more important to master.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and M. Muneer are, respectively, chair professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and co-founder of non-profit Medici Institute.

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