The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our plans for the year out of whack. It’s impacted everybody, from seasoned professionals moving up in the industry to students with cancelled summer internships. COVID-19 has also seemingly put a pause on crucial networking opportunities. Or has it?
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that when times get tough, being resourceful and responsive becomes more important. Events, such as major conferences, have gone virtual. Professionals who previously had no time to schedule several coffee chats a week have become more accessible through online chats.
While Canada opens back up and allows small groups of people to gather, many events are staying virtual. And not everyone is comfortable meeting people outside of their immediate circle. So you must be wondering how to maintain your career momentum when everything seems to have slowed way down.
We don’t know when things will go back to “normal” but it may not be soon. If that’s the case, we can’t wait for networking events to just pick up again. Instead, I recommend adjusting to the situation we’re in now because networking during COVID-19 is still possible.
Here are some tips on how to stay professionally active and make the most of virtual networking opportunities, all while staying safe.
Staying motivated while staying home
First, let’s address the impact that COVID-19 is having on the job market. The pandemic has put the brakes on a lot of people’s careers whether through furloughs, layoffs or halting growth opportunities. Some companies have implemented a hiring freeze for a short-term period or indefinitely, which is diminishing the number of jobs available.
The good news (though it might not seem like it) is that you’re not alone in feeling scared, anxious and burned out. So many of my connections with years of experience are going through the same struggles and it’s incredibly humbling for our entire industry. The other silver lining to this situation is that you have allies in the industry that can help you through this period.
If you’re looking for an internship or a new job, stay motivated by creating small, measurable goals to accomplish each day. Don’t try to stack your day with too many things to do. If you try to do too much all at once, it can become overwhelming and you’ll feel bad if you fall short of your goal.
Here are some easy daily tasks you can do (some of which I’ll cover in greater detail later on):
- Make a list of three industries that interest you and try to connect with 2–3 people from those industries
- Refresh your resume and ask your friends to have a look
- Reach out to 2–3 people in your network and let them know what kind of opportunities you’re interested in
- Identify and sign up for an informative virtual event (i.e. conference, webinar or class)
- Read 2–3 articles on trending issues in your industry or profession
- Reach out to former colleagues or managers and ask them for a LinkedIn reference
Another way to stay motivated is to reward yourself with small treats after you accomplish tasks. If you had a great week meeting people and making connections, treat yourself to a virtual Netflix movie night with your friends. Just remember that it’s okay to take breaks because it’s not realistic to be productive every second of the day. And after a night of fun, you’ll wake up refreshed and ready to cross off more tasks on your to-do list.
LinkedIn is still the king
Even if COVID-19 weren’t happening, LinkedIn would still be my choice as a primary networking tool. If you don’t yet have a LinkedIn profile yet, use some of your free time to make one. The platform is incredibly simple to set up and use. And employers nowadays expect you to have an account, to the extent that some will only accept job applications through LinkedIn and no other way.
If you do have a LinkedIn account, you might not be using it to its fullest potential. There are so many great tutorials online to help you make the most of your profile and experience.
When I was developing my LinkedIn profile, I watched a ton of YouTube videos on how to optimize my page. Here are the ones I recommend:
- How To Use LinkedIn For Beginners – 7 LinkedIn Profile Tips
- Post on LinkedIn: 5 tips that got me 30k+ impressions a day
- How to Make a Great LinkedIn Profile – 6 LinkedIn Profile Tips
There are also great articles on the subject:
- The Secret to Building a LinkedIn Profile That Gets Results
- 9 ways to upgrade your LinkedIn profile
- Here’s an example of the perfect LinkedIn profile summary, according to Harvard career experts
The easiest way to make connections on LinkedIn is to start with your immediate network (fellow students, teachers, colleagues) and work your way outwards. Your targeted connections (the people you want to speak with) are more likely to accept your invitation if you have mutual connections — it establishes credibility in advance.
I suggest speaking with your established LinkedIn members to get prior approval before sending a connection request and then sending a message that includes their name. Here’s a sample of a LinkedIn note you can send:
Hi [targeted connection],
I hope you’re having a nice day.
My name is [Your Name] and I’m incredibly interested in learning more about [company, subject, industry…].
I look forward to connecting and speaking with you soon.
Keep in mind that you’re limited to 200 characters when sending a message to a non-connection on LinkedIn. It’s always better to have a mutual connection introduce you through a message, that way you can write more. Just remember: when reaching out to a stranger, keep your messages short, kind and professional. People are busy and they don’t want to be confronted by a wall of text in their inbox.
After connecting on LinkedIn, you can ask that connection if they’re open to speaking over video or by phone. Back-and-forth messaging on LinkedIn can only get you so far. To get to know each other better, as well as ask any questions you have about their profession or industry, it’s better to connect with a one-on-one meeting on a video or phone call.
Making a good (virtual) first impression
Most people might not be comfortable meeting someone new for coffee at the moment. And even if you did, you would have to awkwardly keep masks on the whole time. Obviously, in-person networking events aren’t the best idea right now either. That means you can expect to be networking during COVID-19 only on a virtual basis for the near future. And since that’s the case, you want to prepare for these moments whenever they arise.
First impressions are everything and sometimes, it can be even harder to make a good one virtually. It’s not as easy to bond with someone through a screen and you miss a lot of body language and social cues.
During video chats (or phone chats), it’s more important than ever to listen carefully, focus on the conversation and respond accordingly. It’ll also be helpful for you to take notes during the chat, as you might forget vital information after the call is over.
And as much as you should show up to the call looking presentable, you should also make sure your space is clean and organized as well. You wouldn’t invite a prospective employer into your messy house, would you? Same rules apply to virtual meetings. Host your sessions in a clean room with a simple background. That way, the focus will be on your conversation and not the empty pizza box sitting on your coffee table.
For those new to virtual meetings, these are some free options that will have you chatting in no time:
Just set up a free profile and you’ll be ready to make and take calls. Different platforms have different capabilities under a free membership so make sure that you choose a platform that best suits your needs. For example, a free Zoom account will limit the number of people you can have on the call and the length (no more than 40 minutes).
If this is your first time using a video meeting platform, I recommend testing it out with friends before hosting a meeting with someone. That way you can get familiar with how to use the platform and resolve any tech issues before your professional calls.
Always be prepared… and dressed
The temptation to wear pyjamas all day during social distancing is real. We’re all guilty of wearing the occasional frumpy hoodie, so no judgement. But I recommend sporting actual clothes during regular business hours (even if you aren’t currently working). As was the case pre-COVID-19, people are busy and may have limited availability during the workday. A last-minute call can happen at any time and you need to take it or lose your chance to speak with that person.
You don’t want to get caught wearing sweats during last-minute networking calls with a prospective employer. If you’re not into wearing jeans from 9-5, I don’t blame you. Hang a nice outfit in your closet that will be easy to grab and put on for short notice calls.
One last thing to note about clothes: when you do virtual calls, no one can see your legs if you’re sitting upright in a chair so wearing casual pants is usually okay. But wearing some pants are definitely necessary though! Could you imagine your fire alarm going off and standing up during a call when you aren’t wearing pants? Big yikes!
In terms of additional prep for your meetings, I would suggest always having a notepad and a few pens ready somewhere nearby, such as your desk drawer. And don’t forget to set your phone to the Do Not Disturb mode. Nothing ruins a good conversation like hearing a phone ringing in the background.
Use your social media to the fullest
Chances are that you have social media accounts (besides LinkedIn) that you use regularly. Why not put them to good use and network your heart out? The same rules as LinkedIn apply. If you have connections that know the person you’re trying to reach, ask them for permission first before sending a personalized note including their name. Your introductory message should be nice and professional, and clear about why you’re reaching out to them.
Most people are really kind about offering advice and guidance. But even if you expect them to respond well, don’t approach them in an overly friendly or comfortable manner. They don’t know you yet, so stay professional and let them warm up to you first.
When it comes to who you should be following on social, we have to start with the best profile for new professionals in communications and marketing – Generation PR! Their updates on the job market helped me so much when I was first starting out and they can do the same for you.
I also recommend following and interacting with organizations you’re interested in working for. The agency where I work, energi PR (@energiPR) loves connecting with people and learning more from young talent. We focus on healthcare, consumer lifestyle, reputation management campaigns and more.
To connect with organizations on social you can share their content, comment on their posts and also just learn more about them by keeping up with their latest updates. If you ever land a job interview with them, you already have an online history that shows your interest in the company as well as tons of information on what the company has been up to in the last few months.
This approach works well for many sectors and especially with organizations that take a light-hearted approach to social and are interactive with their followers. But when it comes to more corporate organizations in sectors such as finance or investor relations, be more cautious. They may not be as appreciative of people trying to get their attention on social.
Stay connected with your favourite brands
The pandemic might have slowed things down in most areas, but the one thing that has been going strong are virtual webinars. No matter what you’re interested in, there’s a good chance that someone somewhere will be hosting a webinar. Check out your favourite PR agencies and organizations and they might have something coming up on their calendar.
Some organizations regularly hold webinars on communications, marketing and social, although some of them will require you to have an account or membership with them. Here are a few that host webinars regularly:
The great thing about these webinars is that the hosts are generally open to speaking with participants afterwards to get feedback and answer any questions. This is a great way to connect with someone in the moment, offering them positive feedback or asking questions, or later when you follow them on social media.
I also recommend signing up for newsletters from your favourite companies. They’ll let you know what’s in the pipeline for events and sessions, as well as new job opportunities. Yes, it can be a pain sometimes to sort through newsletters in your inbox later so try to read them the same day they arrive.
Here are some organizations that put out newsletters related to marketing and communications:
- The Moz Top 10 (SEO and digital marketing)
- Hubspot (general marketing)
- PRWeek Dashboard (communications technology and media relations)
- Cision (PR and social industry news and trends)
- The Content Strategist from Contently (content marketing)
Cut yourself some slack
It wasn’t that long ago that I was networking heavily to get an internship and a job. Connecting to new people through LinkedIn and social media as well as making measurable daily goals kept me motivated when I was competing for coveted internships and my current job.
Times are hard on the boulevard for pretty much everyone right now. It’s important to remember when searching for a job or networking that people are busy and could be going through difficult situations that might delay their ability to get back to you. Stay patient, and don’t forget to follow-up if you haven’t heard back.
Sometimes, you’ll be successful in connecting with someone. Other times, you might be rejected or ignored. Just remember to be kind to yourself and take networking during COVID-19 one day at a time. If you put in the effort, you will eventually end up with a lot of connections more than happy to offer guidance and support. And they will help you get to where you ultimately want to be.
Start your networking adventure today by reaching out to me on LinkedIn. I’m more than happy to help you expand your network and bridge connections on your journey. I also recommend checking out my workplace, energi PR (we’ve been awesome for over 30 years).