On Opening Doors During Lockdown

Culture and values
Phil Purver
By Phil Purver | 28th May 2020

Chief Executive of The Working Manager, Managing Director of iRIS Health Solutions Ltd.

Did you know, the UK’s business events industry is estimated to be worth £31 billion? In 2018, there were approximately 1.48 million conferences and meetings in the UK, and 95.3 million delegates attended these events*.

Entrepreneurs and business leaders clearly recognise the value of these events, not least because of the networking opportunities they facilitate. For many, these engagements would have been a highlight of the business calendar due to the opportunities, future job prospects and industry connections they inspired.

Enter 2020. Lockdown was declared, the cancellation emails started piling up, and the mood in the business world was bleak.

This isn't surprising. Despite the prevalence of social media, email and good old-fashioned telephone conversations, many believed that real alliances could only be formed face-to-face.

Add the stress of difficult working conditions, an unstable economy and poor health into the business environment, and it was easy to fear that COVID-19 would mean certain death for networking.

But has this been the case?

This theory is based on the assumption that we were all great networkers before the pandemic — and for me, at least, this wasn’t true. Of course, I recognised the importance of networking. It was always on my to-do list — but somehow in the fast-paced pre-COVID-19 world, I never managed to tick the box. ‘I’m too busy to network,’ became my get-out clause.

All that changed in March when — blown away by the unfolding crisis — I spontaneously picked up the phone to a contact on the other side of the world. I just wanted to check how he and his business were doing. To stop for a moment to reflect on the magnitude of the situation. His response was revealing. ‘You’re the first person to call with no agenda,’ he said.

The goodwill and sense of connection that followed inspired me to rethink my attitude towards networking.

What if now was a good time to revitalise my network?

On a practical level, this made sense. I have gained time: the travel ban means remote meetings so I'm saving hours that were previously eaten up by commuting. People are only inviting me to meetings that genuinely require me to be there. Those I have been attending are more focused and concise.

Let’s not forget the energy I’ve been saving too; I’m less tired, more motivated and more productive. Without the constant travel and face to face sessions, I’ve felt less burnt out by the end of the day. Suddenly a leisurely phone conversation with a valued contact feels doable, welcome even.

This renewed energy for networking couldn’t have come at a better time: the new climate means that if I don’t network, I am much less visible. I’m aware of how easy it would be to keep my head down and fire through my to-do list. In the interests of keeping up my new momentum, I’ve resolved to polish and adapt my networking skills to the ‘new normal’.

Being invited to appear as a panellist on a recent Careerburst webinar entitled ‘Networking - socially distant style!’ focused my efforts. It forced me to think about how I can best network now. The tips from fellow panellists, John Corfield — Director at Lorien — and Melanie Small — Business Growth Director at TWM — were illuminating and bore out my recent experience: that networking doesn’t have to be a formal affair that weighs heavy on the to-do list. Often, a simple ‘virtual coffee’ or a quick phone chat can have just as much value.

A comment from John during the webinar supported this: he reminded us that people are tired of racing from zoom call to zoom call at the moment. Sometimes a quick catch up on the phone is more doable: it allows people to potter in the background, stretch their legs and make a cup of tea with no pressure to ‘perform’ in front of the camera.

Mel agreed that consideration is crucial at this time. ‘I am very mindful that conversation openers like, ‘how are you holding up today?’ are more empathetic than the usual quick hellos. I really try to listen to the reply and share something about my status or vulnerabilities too. I’m more patient. People are grappling with a lot of extra work in some cases and covering multiple roles. So yeah, it’s just making those goodwill calls and being careful not to ask for too much of people on a practical note.’

The panellists also agreed that social media networking tools are more important than ever during Lockdown, but should be used with caution. Now isn’t the time for pushy sales messages or competitive ‘my lockdown is better than your lockdown’ posts. Yes, reach out to people, but make it more about them, than you. Look for ways to give, rather than take.

‘I'm writing more posts on LinkedIn,’ Mel said ‘but they’re more around, “can I put you in touch with someone? Can I write a recommendation for you? Can I put in a good word for you?”’

So, while our traditional events may be on hold for a while, for many, the spirit to reach out is stronger than ever. If we approach networking with authenticity, consideration and empathy, it’s my firm belief that the resulting connections will open doors for years to come.

The recording of the Careerburst webinar ‘Networking - socially distant style!’ is available here.

If you would like to grab a virtual coffee, please don’t hesitate to get in touch philip.purver@theworkingmanager.com

*Stats taken from ConferenceNews UK

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