Networking is at the core of any successful job search strategy. This is true in the best of times, when unemployment is low and jobs are plentiful. It’s certainly the case now, when competition is fierce and any single job listing can draw hundreds of applicants. Networking is essential for two main reasons – it can give you the advantage of learning about opportunities before they are posted to the general public and it can lead to someone personally recommending you for a position, making all the difference in securing an interview and eventually an offer.
In the COVID-19 era, we’ve moved most of our personal relationships and networking efforts from in-person to virtual. The pandemic has created barriers to connecting with others in all spheres of life, but you can follow some best practices for making the most of virtual networking to find a job.
what exactly is networking?
Simply put, networking is reaching out to people with purpose. And for this discussion, the purpose is to help find a job. As a career transition coach, I have clients who bristle at the mere thought of asking for help. And to them I say (as gently as I can), ‘get over it.’ We all need help at some point. And now is as good a time as any to flex that muscle. Humility builds character, which builds strength. I also suggest my clients reframe the idea that asking for help is burdensome.
In my experience, and to the initial surprise of many job seekers with whom I work, most people like helping others. It gives the helper a sense of well-being and purpose, so try to think of asking for help as a gift. The second most common objection I hear from clients about networking is that they’re uncomfortable making initial contact. I hear this mostly from clients who describe themselves as introverts. Connecting with others evokes a ‘break-out-in-a-sweat' fear. In a way, these two objections intersect because the remedy is the same. Building a successful networking strategy starts with contacting just one person at a time, preferably an ally, a person with whom you feel comfortable, so that you can get better at it. The more you do this, the more routine it will become.
what makes virtual networking different?
In the pandemic era, most large gatherings are banned, so one common way to connect is out of reach for now. This means you miss the opportunity to exchange business cards at a conference, fundraiser or other formally billed networking events. As someone who’s reasonably good at making small talk with strangers, even I found these gatherings socially awkward, and a hit or miss for growing my network. I often forced myself to go but dreaded them as a vehicle for networking.
My strategy for networking events was to have a tangible goal of connecting with two or three new people, and then give myself permission to leave. And now that they’re not an option, to these events, I say, ‘good riddance.’ But there are ample virtual opportunities available to you when in-person networking events are not available. The good news is that you don’t have to fight rush hour traffic (spoken as a Los Angeles resident) or wreck your clothes by sticking on a name tag.
how to secure a virtual meeting
If you’re reaching out to someone you haven’t previously worked with or otherwise met, the mechanics for securing a one-on-one meeting are the same, whether in-person or virtual. And the key is sending a request that will generate a response. But before clicking ‘send’ on your request, your LinkedIn profile needs to be up-to-date and fully fleshed out with a strong ‘about’ section because there’s a good chance it will be reviewed. If you have a website or portfolio, make sure it’s ready for prime time.
Here are some ground rules for soliciting a meeting:
- Less is more. Make your solicitation request short. People are busy.
- Think about the recipient’s self-interest and establish your credibility. This will vary from person to person. It could be reminding them of a mutual friend or colleague in common, being an alumnus of the same school, or when none of this applies, it might be that you’re inspired by their work or their company’s mission.
- Be clear about the ‘ask.’ In this case, the ask is a meeting, so don’t hedge on that. Given that this meeting will be virtual and most likely on the phone or conducted through a video conference, graciously ask for 10 minutes of their time.
- Once you set the meeting, prepare your questions in advance by understanding what you want to know by the end of the call. Don’t overstay your welcome, unless the other person indicates they want to keep talking.
how to widen your virtual circle to find a job
Now that we’ve established the importance of networking to find a job, you’re going to want to set up many one-on-one meetings. And since they’re virtual with no travel time, it makes scheduling easier for both parties. But once you’ve exhausted your list of allies and you aren’t getting any more leads, it’s time to expand the circle – even if means stepping outside of your virtual comfort zone.
take an online class or webinar
As we’ve lost some of the more organic ways of connecting, we must manufacture them. Taking an online class is a great vehicle to do this during your job search, in part because it has many benefits beyond just networking. You can refresh your skills to be a more competitive applicant and it gives you a good story to tell during an interview. Try to find a class or webinar that has a live component, so that you can reach out to other participants in real time.
A few of my clients take classes in current programming languages while others have gone for their project management certifications. But if a course related to your professional field doesn’t engage you, find something related to a hobby. Most virtual meeting places have a mechanism for connecting, whether it’s through a chat icon or breakout room. Set a goal of exchanging contact information with at least a few of your classmates.
find an outlet to volunteer
One of my go-to recommendations for clients who’ve hit the wall with their job search is to find a volunteer opportunity. Looking for work can be time consuming, depleting and to some degree, inward-facing. But even when it feels like there’s nothing left to give, volunteering is a way to give back, which has the surprising result of being restorative and reenergising, just when you need it most. Volunteering also offers the opportunity to expand your network and meet new people in a structured environment while engaged in a common purpose. The pandemic has created limitations when it comes to volunteering but there are still ample ways to get involved, whether it’s delivering food to people in need, fostering pets or mentoring K-12 students. Volunteermatch.org is a good place a start.
join a virtual group
The search to find a job in the pandemic era requires out-of-the-box thinking. It would be so much easier to go to a favorite in-person hangout to grow our networks and connect. But these are unprecedented times and a virtual group could turn out to be next best thing. You can choose one closely aligned with your profession, or something related to a passionate hobby, like the NBA or baking bread. LinkedIn — an essential ally in any job search — is an accessible place to find like-minded groups, as are websites like Meetup.com. And if you’re comfortable with Facebook, it’s another platform you can search. Once you’ve joined, you will find forums to ask questions and you just might find someone who has a connection to help you find a job.
to find a job through virtual networking, set a concrete goal
In the pre-pandemic days of attending large networking gatherings, my survival tool was to set limits. And though it may sound counterintuitive, this is a key strategy in a successful job search. One of the challenges of looking for work is that it’s an amorphous task that can have few boundaries, seeping into every other part of life, meaning it’s important to establish borders. Design a framework to keep the job search contained by setting concrete, achievable goals each week.
Whether your virtual networking is through an online class, a LinkedIn group or volunteering, set a concrete goal of how many people you’ll contact each week, and give yourself permission to take a well-deserved day off when you reach your goal.