Guest Commentator: Zoey Toy, Account Executive, Alta Management Services @AltaManagement and YPC Advisory Board Member

It has been nearly a year of most of us working from home, social distancing, and having virtual meetings. It can be easy to get hung up on what we feel we’ve lost by not being able to get together in person. Believe me, I miss the days when we’d pack a room with 100+ YPC members for an evening of networking. However, I also think there is a lot of networking that can be accomplished virtually that, in some cases, is even better than in-person.

I manage a networking organization called Beacon, which connects senior-level business leaders in the region. In the two years that I have been with Beacon, I have seen how networking with intention and with the spirit of giving and helping can build long-lasting relationships. Here are some tips for networking that I’ve learned along the way.

Always be networking (sort of.)

Obviously, I don’t mean that you should be networking 24/7/365. What I mean is to be open to networking throughout all phases of your career and no matter what your role. It’s not just for those looking for a new job or only for those who are in business development. I personally look forward to networking opportunities because they help me expand my horizon and feel connected to the community.

Virtual platforms make networking easier than ever. Almost everyone has at least 30 minutes they can spare to meet with you. No commute required.

Networking is not transactional; it is relationship oriented.

I know we’ve all been in a networking situation where a person comes up to you, business card in hand, ready to talk to you about how they can help you. In these instances, ‘help’ is often synonymous with ‘sell.’ There is nothing inherently wrong with networking with the intent of selling, but trust is an important factor in any sale, whether a product/service or pitching yourself for a job. How can you trust someone you just met 10 seconds ago?

If you instead focus on trying to understand the other person and what they do and find common ground with them, you will get much more out of your experience. Ask them how you can help them, whether that’s introducing them to someone in your network or just recommending a podcast; that small offer to help will work wonders for you. Give as much help as you can and you will receive help from others. It may not be directly from the person you helped, but positivity and good karma will eventually work their way back to you.

Personal/professional spillover is OK.

In a virtual setting, there can be a bit more spillover of personal life into professional life. There are some people I have known for years in a professional setting, but didn’t get to know all that well on a personal level until this year. You may get to meet their furry friend, see some of the artwork they have in their home office, or talk about the show they are currently binging on Netflix. These can be great conversation starters and a way to ease into your meeting before jumping to the more professional topics. Keep in mind that there are still some topics that should remain off the table unless you know the person well and that different people have different comfort levels with opening up on their personal lives.

Networking doesn’t have to be daunting.

Start out with what you’re comfortable with and work your way up. That could mean having a get-to-know-you meeting with a colleague in your department who you don’t know very well yet. Just one of those types of meetings per month can make you feel more connected to your company, particularly in a time when many of us are not in the office. As you build up confidence, you can start to reach out to others — perhaps a potential mentor or someone who has your dream job. It will never hurt you to ask to meet with them; the worst that can happen is they say no, but you’ll never know unless you ask.

Your network should be both internal and external.

A strong internal network is a vital part of functioning within a company and its culture. However, don’t forget to cultivate a network outside of your company. Most of us don’t end up spending our whole careers at the same company, so at some point you’re going to need to know other people. Organizations like YPC are great for building a community of peers for your external network.

Lastly, be kind to yourself and others.

As much as it may feel like virtual meetings give us a window into a person’s home, you may not truly know what they are going through. There may be health issues or other personal issues at play to which you are not privy. So, try to take things in stride. If a person has to cancel a meeting last minute, be open to rescheduling. If your dog won’t stop barking in the background of a virtual meeting, try to laugh it off and mute yourself. We all need to be more understanding of each other these days and approach our interactions with others and with ourselves with a kindness-first mentality.

Share your thought leadership.

Do you have professional or career advice, virtual networking tips, or other insights to share? Submit a post for consideration.