In a Virtual World, It’s Time to Rethink Your Networking Strategy

With everything going on, thinking about your network can feel frivolous, but now is actually the perfect time to reconsider how and with whom you connect.

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Our social worlds are shrinking. And rampant polarization leaving everyone less likely to interact with people unlike themselves isn’t the only culprit. Our social and professional networks are suffering, too. Especially our weak ties — the acquaintances, friends-of-friends, and casual colleagues — who are sources of novel, valuable information and serve as important social outlets. Research conducted by Marissa King, a professor at the Yale School of Management, suggests that people’s weak ties have been reduced by nearly 1/5 since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not necessarily surprising: In times of crisis, we tend to fall back on our closest and most trusted friends and family. But quite a lot is lost with this contraction.

And while plenty of good advice has been offered on effective networking in a virtual world, it can feel even more intimidating to people who already shy away from proactive, in-person networking behaviors. Who wants to put themselves out there by reaching out to someone they don’t know particularly well while they’re sitting at home? 

Amidst all this, the two of us have each seen that same layer of our networks (weak ties) grow by nearly 100 people — people from around the globe and across multiple industries and career stages. It’s happened not by reaching out to others, but by having others come to us. 

The solution? Take a page from academia: Hold your very own open office hours. What began as a desire to do something helpful and productive at the start of the pandemic has evolved into a new, more effective way of connecting and growing our networks when so many are working virtually.

Here’s how. First, and most importantly, set aside an hour every week or two and carve it into 15- or 20-minute blocks. Second, announce to the world or your company via social media (we chose LinkedIn) that you’re hosting open office hours, making sure to indicate the topics in which you have interest and/or expertise. This is where you can influence with whom you ultimately end up speaking (see our original posts here and here). Finally, give people a way to sign up (we used Calendly) and a means of connecting (e.g. Zoom). Its simplicity does not diminish its power. 

Upon sharing the idea with others, the first reaction tends to be: “open to anyone?!” Yes, because that’s how you engage with people outside of your usual social circles. The purpose is to have different conversations than you would otherwise — these are about connecting with novel perspectives — not necessarily to make new best friends. But to ensure that people were committed and legitimately interested in a relevant conversation, we requested a couple of sentences about each attendee’s desire to connect. This not only allowed us to screen out the very few connections unlikely to yield a productive interaction, but to make sure that the 15 minutes was effective and productive. 

The conversations have been rich, varied, and global. Over 50% of them have been with people with whom we had no connection prior to the call. Crucially, they have been energizing and mutually beneficial — people we have spoken with leave the call incredibly appreciative of the time and thoughtfulness, while we and others who have taken up the idea have had unexpected opportunities arise. 

Through our own office hours and conversations with other early adopters, we have seen company leadership breaking down silos, reinstating a sense of team connectivity, and holding effortless “skip-level” conversations. We have learned of shifts in company cultures from trepidation around seeking conversations with executives to relief at the willingness of those same executives to make time. We know of individuals reconnecting with formerly close friends, some of whom hadn’t spoken in decades, and of office hours attendees being hired by or going into business with office hours hosts. 

Importantly, there has been minimal downside. No unsolicited sales. No antagonistic political discussions. Not even any boring conversations. Hosting office hours might even have the wonderful benefit of exposing you to diverse and unforeseen viewpoints due to the varied backgrounds the exercise naturally invites. 

And even if it doesn’t radically change your worldview, it almost certainly will make you feel better about your day. These office hours are a means of helping others and providing a sense of purpose (and well-being) when much of the world feels out of control. One weak tie who started hosting his own office hours called them “the happiest days of the pandemic.”

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer, or company, including but not limited to INSEAD or LinkedIn.

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