How to Build and Maintain Your Network

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Ways to stay connected with your network as communication shifts online

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Larry Crane and Elisabeth Wiener of the Rotary Club of Durham catch up at a socially distanced happy hour held at new downtown restaurant Plum Southern Kitchen & Bar.

By Hannah McClellan | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Arthur Rogers very seldom conducted business virtually prior to last March. Rogers, a commercial real estate developer, is the owner of Eno Ventures, which specializes in the adaptive reuse of old properties.

“What’s worked so well for me over the years is I typically get my tenants through networking, just by being out in the community and talking to people,” Rogers said. “Networking for me is really important – I just greatly prefer to do it in person.”

In-person meetings are, of course, limited these days, due to gathering limits imposed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. With the exception of Rotary Club of Durham’s after-hours meetings, Rogers said his networking is almost entirely online.

“So this has been quite a bit different for me,” he said. Many people, like Rogers, had to figure out new ways to build their networks and maintain professional relationships as businesses have adapted to a virtual COVID-19 landscape. The distribution of vaccines gives hope that some sense of normalcy could return soon, but businesspeople are also recognizing the benefits of online networking: more opportunities, increased access for people with disabilities and higher meeting attendance.

“I’m glad that this is not a permanent way of doing business, because I really enjoy talking with people and finding tenants that way,” Rogers said. “I look forward to getting back to face-to-face meetings, but there’s definitely going to be a place for Zoom meetings going forward.”

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF INCREASED NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES

Rogers said he misses meeting in person, but that virtual meetings have also removed barriers to conducting business. He recently began work on a project in Wilson, North Carolina, which would normally require over a one-hour drive. Now all he has to do is join a conference call or Zoom meeting.

Rogers also noticed increased attendance among most of the organizations he belongs to.

You’re not getting the in person experience, but in a way, you’re getting a lot more bang for your buck because you’re getting a lot more people attending,” he said.

The shift to digital events has its pros and cons, said Pashara Black, PR and content marketing manager at StrongKey, which provides custom cybersecurity solutions.

Prior to COVID-19, StrongKey hosted a series of cybersecurity meetups in the Triangle, which had nearly 700 members. Such a large project is difficult to replicate online, but Black said the company now hosts webinars, participates at online conferences and increases its content output.

“We’re trying to diversify, because people still want to connect and people are still hungry for knowledge and information, but it’s not always in the form of sitting in front of a webcam,” she said.

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Robinson Everett looks on as Ed Pikaart stokes the fire at Plum. A handful of Rotarians gather safely outdoors on Monday afternoons once a month.

Black said connections in her network have increased their social media usage, particularly on LinkedIn and Clubhouse, an audio-based social media app. Though she’s mostly been on Clubhouse in a personal capacity, she sees the site as “part of the evolution of digital marketing and networking.” She once joined a Clubhouse room for Black businesspeople in the technology industry.

“There were some people that were speaking in the room that were heads of departments at Twitter,” she said. “Normally, it would cost me a couple hundred dollars to buy a conference ticket to see someone at that level speak, but I’m here in our Clubhouse room, and they’re just willingly answering questions and sharing knowledge.”

“Accessibility is really increasing during COVID-19,” she said. “And I think people are being a little bit more vulnerable as well, by allowing access to them.”

BE SELECTIVE IN WHAT YOU ATTEND

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with so many networking and professional opportunities available now. Black said it’s important to be selective with the events you attend.

“I know that people are experiencing a lot of Zoom fatigue, but I think the remedy to that is just committing to, ‘I’m going to attend one virtual thing a week,’ instead of trying to make everything,” she said. “Quantifying it, I think, makes it a lot more tangible.”

The pandemic highlighted the need to curate networking, said Casey Steinbacher, executive director of Made in Durham, a Durham community partnership working to create a better education-to-career system.

“We don’t have the luxury of time, especially in our work, to network randomly,” Steinbacher said.

She said online meetings often led to blurred work-life boundaries for students and working adults alike, stretching many people thin.

“I think the methodologies that we’ve used electronically to stay connected and network and do business have allowed us to take care of our transactional business, but not our relationship business,” she said.

She’s addressed this in her work by being selective in what meetings and events she commits to, prioritizing consistent meetings with her most important connections. For some meetings, she said, it’s OK to have your microphone and video camera off while you multitask, while others require your full attention.

“Curate the conversations,” she said. “You don’t have to be on everything.”

Taking a few minutes to check in with people also made a difference in how she approaches meetings, as it helps others “feel that there are people out there who actually still view them as a person, not just the transaction on the other side of the Zoom.”

Black agreed, adding that communication with your supervisor is crucial, as most are understanding of the stresses and responsibilities that people are dealing with outside of work, too.

Plus, she said, treating your colleagues like people can help combat the fatigue of only seeing faces from across a computer screen.

“I think just genuinely caring about the people in your network has been big – you know, caring outside of just the professional things,” she said. “Not necessarily prying into people’s personal business, but, ‘How are your kids adjusting?’ or ‘How is it being home with your kids?’”

MEET IN PERSON – SAFELY

Even as people adapt to make the most of virtual networking, Black said the occasional in-person meeting can go a long way.

“Over the course of COVID-19, I’ve taken a handful of in-person, socially distanced outdoor meetings just to be able to have that human interaction,” she said. “I literally mean a handful, but that’s been great.”

She also emphasized the importance of taking time away from the computer. Whether it’s going on a short walk, taking a real lunch break or limiting her media intake, Black said time away from a screen is vital in making the most of other online meetings

Durham businesspeople explore new ways to build and maintain their professional network during a pandemic.
Larry Crane and Elisabeth Wiener of the Rotary Club of Durham catch up at a socially distanced happy hour held at new downtown restaurant Plum Southern Kitchen & Bar.

Steinbacher also emphasized the importance of stepping away, and said she’s worked hard the last few months to not feel guilty about what she didn’t accomplish during a day – especially when remote work can make work-life boundaries less clear. She’s also tried to find measurable goals for networking, like sending 10 invites on LinkedIn per day, and including messages to curate a more authentic network.

“When I say curate, it’s not only to curate the people you’re talking to,” she said, “but curate to the medium that you use to actually connect.”

Rogers, who avoids social media when he can, said he’s tried to make the most of any in-person networking. At Durham Rotary, where he previously served as president, he’s enjoyed the small in-person meetings that individual Rotarians have hosted in addition to its weekly virtual ones. He said he’s particularly grateful for places like Gulghupf Bakery, Cafe & Biergarten on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, which provides outdoor heaters so people can more safely gather and network during the colder months.

“Just remember that we are getting close to being able to reopen everything,” he said. “That’s the only thing I can say, because there’s nothing like actual in-person interaction. There’s a substitute, but it’s not a perfect substitute – so I just have to keep my eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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