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How to network in the age of COVID-19

Here's what you need to know about making professional connections during a pandemic.
Illustration of old computer and graphical elements
It can be especially difficult to make connections while working remotely or starting your career in a pandemic, but don't lose hope!TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Expanding your professional network takes time. But the first step in networking effectively is understanding that the point of the process is simply making a human connection with another person.

Meeting people during the pandemic is hard enough, so growing your network — especially in the beginning of your career — seems especially tricky right now. TMRW reached out to networking experts not only to get tips on how to navigate these uncharted times, but also to gain insight into tried-and-true strategies that work.

1. Form real connections on LinkedIn

While not the most glamorous of social media channels, it’s worth leaning into LinkedIn’s business-casual approach. Chandra Turner, founder and CEO of media career site Ed2010, sees the channel as a great way to connect with alumni who went to your college. “You can use the LinkedIn messaging tool to reach out to them,” she said. LinkedIn has easy-to-navigate filters that help you see people who you share experiences with.

Not sure where to start when it comes to messaging? Turner has a script that can help:

“I see that you went to X University — I just graduated this year, and I would love to talk to you because you're in a job that I would love to be in one day. Do you have 10 minutes to have a call with me next week?”

2. Reach out to other young people

Turner says one of the biggest mistakes young professionals make is reaching out to people who are much higher up on the ladder than they are. “The best person for you to be connected with is probably somebody who's only one rung or two rungs above where you are,” she said. “They are more empathetic to your cause ... and they are probably more receptive to listening to you because they recently went through it.”

3. Make the process as human as you can

The job-like, mechanical aspect of networking is what deters so many people from giving it a shot. Solange Lopes, writer and professor at Stonehill College, has simple advice to make networking less intimidating.

“Try to make the process as human as possible,” she said. “First learn about the person and take the time to read their bio to learn more about them.”

If you’re connecting without any mutual friends, try to find a common point of interest. It could be something as simple as you both played the same club sport in college or you both went to the same university. Turner says to call networking “making friends” to help you understand the essence of the process is to form common ground with another person.

4. Take it slow if you’re introverted — practice makes perfect!

For those who are more introverted, meeting people you don’t know can be very nerve-wracking. Take it from Nina Semczuk, a freelance writer/editor, SEO consultant and self-proclaimed introvert.

“The more you do it, the less anxiety provoking it seems,” she said.

If you set goals for yourself, even if it’s just reaching out to one new person every month, you can slowly find your groove. “You just have to remind yourself that everyone kind of feels that way and most people are nice and they're flattered when you try to connect with them,” Semczuk said.

5. Join professional groups and organizations virtually

According to Turner, the most effective way to network during the pandemic is through Facebook and LinkedIn groups and professional organizations. Joining groups that align with your field, like Women’s Media Group or the Society for Women Engineers, can be your “in” to different virtual panels.

“Even if you're going to a virtual panel, shoot an email to the moderator or one of the panelists,” Turner said. By striking up a conversation about attending a mutual event, you won’t have to blindly write an email to a stranger. Facebook groups are another casual way to get to know people in your industry, share advice and post resources about jobs.

6. Stay persistent, but still polite

Like any human connection, developing a relationship doesn’t happen overnight. Lopes says staying persistent, but not pesky, is important to balance. Follow up with the person you’ve connected with, but know there are boundaries when it comes to flooding their inbox.

“Don’t send messages back to back,” Lopes said. “Give it a week or so in between requests to connect so as not to appear pesky, but also to allow enough time for the other person to digest your invitation.”

7. Don’t ask for a job

According to Lopes, if you ask for a job in the early stages of networking with someone, you’ll just seem desperate and it’ll be off-putting; think of it as the golden rule of networking.

“What's important to understand about networking is that it's a give-and-take process,” Lopes said. “Someone has to put a substantial amount of trust in you to provide you with a job without knowing much information about you.” Since networking is an exchange of resources, Lopes says to put it in terms of helping: Who do you think I can be of help to in your network and who in my network would you like to be connected to?

8. Follow up and send a thank you email

Semczuk says to always err on the side of being too thankful.

“It shows the collegiality of this person is thoughtful and realized they used up some of my time,” she said. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, so drafting a brief email to show your thanks is a standard practice that can go a long way.

9. Sustain relationships with check-ins

Maintaining relationships can be difficult, but periodic check-ins make the process easier. If you’re messaging a former supervisor or contact, you can simply say hi and send them an example of your most recent work. Turner says to use the same email thread in order to jog people’s memories.

Check social media frequently for any updates from former classmates or co-workers. “If you see someone had a big win, whether they had something published or they changed jobs, congratulate them and send them an email,” Semczuk said.

On the other hand, it’s natural for relationships to fall away, so don’t put pressure on yourself to sustain every single one. “If you're trying to juggle all the balls, you're going to drop them and not actually be focusing on whatever it is that you need,” Semczuk said. “Just be genuine.”