I had many online meetings during the pandemic, like everyone else.
Some were work meetings, some were professional webinars, and some, even professional conferences, were entirely conducted online during the pandemic.
However, I have never attended the virtual “networking” events.
Meeting strangers without a purpose, all done online, seemed pointless.
As someone who does not see many benefits from even physical networking meetings, I certainly did not feel the need to put on a business persona, even if it was only for the top half of me.
However, the recent invitation from my alumni group from NYC got me curious about their event. Maybe it was my early caffeine-induced morning energy; I was curious and receptive to the new experience, unlike other times.
Seeing the event from my day job angle (architect), I did not see the value in the event itself. It was for recent graduates (no architecture school) looking for jobs and contacts.
I did not see any connection to my situation…until I saw the following message.
“…interested in finding collaborators, sharing resources, and inspiring new projects?”
In addition to my day job, I have been running a design blog for many years on the side. As any bloggers agree, the work consists of many to-do lists besides writing. Not only to come up with weekly blog post ideas and writings but also many other things to consider in the blogging world: promotion, keeping up with technology updates etc.
Within these many to-do lists, the most challenging part of running a blog is the loneliness; I am the only blogger who is going through the challenge of coming up with weekly blog posts which might not be read or, worse, not liked….at least, that is how I feel most of the times.
Wanting to find another person to talk to about this challenging journey – and hoping to hear that I am not the only one- was the reason for clicking the registration button.
With these somewhat fuzzy objectives, I took my first step into an online networking experience.
No preparation before the event
Once I joined the event, I was expecting to turn on the video/sound buttons like other digital meetings we got used to since the pandemic.
However, there were no video/sound buttons to click. Instead, there were written descriptions of the person I connected to and a messaging section where I could type rather than speak.
The networking would be done all in text messaging mode without seeing each other!
In addition to no video/audio features, several things differed from my usual Zoom meetings. We were only allowed for 10min for communication. We were shown each other’s contact information to reach out if we wanted to communicate further.
After 10 minutes, a new person’s information appeared on the screen. I had to get ready to “meet” the next person. With the urgency created by the short ten minutes duration, I became much more focused.
Instead of the usual introduction, we discussed why we signed up for the event. While discussing the purpose and reasons, our discussions became much more forthright.
The experience felt eerily like the speed dating event I attended two decades ago, except for the typing part.
One attendee who got matched up with me gave the “rejection” quickly. After learning about my job (architect) and my interest (finding other bloggers), he promptly pointed out that we did not have much in common, to which I agreed.
His profile was pretty lengthy, indicating his interest in technology, writing and his motivation for attending the event: looking for a job in publication.
On the other hand, my profile had a short( not in a good way) description of my job and a vague wish list of finding other bloggers.
I was “appreciative” of his direct approach in rejecting me and moving on to the next person since I would not have been able to be as upfront as he had.
He clearly prepared for the event, not like me. He knew what he wanted out of the event…on the other hand, my passive (aka no preparation) approach was not helpful for everyone involved, including me.
No conviction in relationship building
Virtual networking turns out to be exactly like physical networking; in the end, they both are about relationship building.
Even though I had one rejection(?), a connection was also made: a female PR professional working in NYC.
Technically, we did not have much in common; we worked in different industries, were unclear on how to help one another, etc.
However, there was an unmistakable connection/interest while we spoke about our NYC lives…even if mine happened in the late 90s and hers at the present time.
Connecting with her reminded me of my university years and the chance to meet lifelong friends. All of us back then did not start with any objectives/purposes in meeting new people; instead, we “just” became friends by learning about each other and growing to trust one another over the years.
Losing the relaxed, purpose/agenda-free approaches to building relationships as we age becomes the norm…almost accepted practice.
No completion with follow up’s
This is huge in any relationship.
However, this is also the most common offence in professional connections. Over the years, I have attended many networking events and have stacks of unused business cards to prove it.
Years ago, when starting my architecture business, I followed the rule of “following up” after the meeting.
Without clear outcomes, or worse, no responses from the other side, I gradually stopped sending the follow-up notes.
However, I was pleasantly surprised with the linked-in invite from the same person (PR professional) I connected with at the recent virtual networking event. Reviewing her profile and seeing her photo on the linked-in platform gave the additional information about her I did not have in that speedy 10 min interaction.
If she did not take the initiative to reach out, my first virtual networking experience would have been the same as some of the unsuccessful “physical” meetings I attended in the past.
The probability of meeting a PR professional in my work setting would be almost nil.
However, my newly formed attitude (with the help of morning coffee) of flexibility and responsible follow-ups could open up new possibilities in the digital networking era.
Having the PR person in my sea of architects/construction linked-in contacts provides the feeling of a marketing safety blanket; I know that I can turn to her for her expertise in marketing/PR questions and connect her to my other linked-in contacts.
Mistakes are an unavoidable part of the learning process.
Except that, there seems to be more to learn and update in this fast-changing world. Having everything online (work meetings, design classes, even family/friends get together) as a communication tool, networking will inevitably follow in online settings.
As all of us are getting used to new ways of working/living (WFH, Hybrid, Back to the office), the significance of connecting with others – whether being the physical or online setting – is the same as it had always been.
Attending the first virtual networking meeting and recognizing my mistakes was valuable in my professional ( and personal) development.
With these mistakes out of the way(?), I anticipate I would become as comfortable in virtual networking settings as physical ones …which is not saying much:-)