Building a professional network without in-person interaction
The opportunities are greater, not diminished.
I started working as a bank teller when I was 16. I continued working at the bank throughout college, eventually moving into underwriting and loan portfolio management. In the latter roles, I had to interact heavily with the loan officers — the people responsible for bringing new business into the bank. By the time I was old enough to drink, they were taking me to bars and buying me dinner. Part of it was a “thank you” for my hard work, and the other part was that they liked being around me. I was in the club.
After college, I took a job that forced me to move across state lines from Wisconsin to Kansas. In a company of 30 people, I found it harder to connect with people in the office. Many of them had kids and no interest in after-office socializing. With others, I found that we didn’t have much in common. There was casual conversation, but many of the employees were smokers and they would go outside to smoke and talk— and I didn’t smoke. I was the outsider and desperately lonely.
Within 6 months, I was given the opportunity to work from home. I moved back to Wisconsin.
Eventually, I became close with some of my colleagues (and ended up staying with the company for 15 years), but those bonds were formed after I left the office. One of my closest friendships formed entirely over email. I was consulting with a bank and on the road for weeks at a time. I’d respond to emails late in the evening and found another employee also working late. We began to trade jokes and sarcasm in our email replies, eventually talking about topics outside of work.
Outside of my relationships with my colleagues, I spent many years forming relationships with customers that transpired entirely over the phone and email. In 2009, the company moved from in-person new client onboarding to a web-based model. At the time, some onboarding specialists resisted this change: how could we get to know our clients if we couldn’t see them in person?
Turned out, we could. And it worked just fine.
What remote work means for younger generations
Arguing that remote work limits professional networking is a flimsy one. It is built on the assumption that collaboration cannot change when, in fact, it has—many times throughout history. Think of the earliest companies that opened up locations across state lines. Think of huge, multinational corporations that have been using video and phone collaboration for decades. They have all learned to function without physical presence.
Glassdoor found that negative mentions of remote work in intern reviews grew by 548 percent between 2019 and 2021. The Wall Street Journal has cited researchers who claim that the personal and professional lives of younger generations will “suffer” as a result of remote work.
Make no mistake: any research, data, or citations that are based only on the past two years are relying on pandemic-induced remote work. They are not reflective of the overall remote employee experience.
Companies that had to make a sudden, dramatic shift to remote work had no time to plan. Yes, it’s likely that some did a terrible job and their new/young employees or interns felt like they were floundering. Those that plan to stay in a remote or hybrid environment need to examine their onboarding and mentorship programs to ensure that remote work yields the same results as in-person interactions.
The networking opportunities are larger, not smaller
Part of the faulty logic comes from the assumption that networking is limited to coworkers or clients.
It’s been a long time since products were sold door-to-door. Salespeople have long relied on cold calls (and later, cold emails) to drum up new business. They have to build a rapport with people they’ve never met in person.
Of course, we’re not all salespeople. That’s a job that relies on building relationships. But the point is that relationships can form, from nothing, if there is a common goal or shared interest.
It’s also faulty logic that the office is the best place for those relationships to form. Ed Zitron writes:
It is incredible how many people have become dependent on the office for their social interactions, and even more incredible how many people seem to believe this legitimizes a return to the office.
In my own experience, I was the outsider and had little in common with my colleagues. If I’d stayed in the office, I might have always felt awkward, because I would have been forced into verbal communication. (Turns out, I’m much wittier when I write and could win people over that way.)
The opportunities exist, and they’re not tied to one’s presence in an office.
Failure to create meaningful networking is a company failure
The limitations of in-person networking have always existed. Companies that provided the most networking activities, such as drinks after work, were inherently unfair to parents, people who relied on public transportation, and anyone who didn’t “fit in.”
For employees that find themselves sitting at home, feeling neglected by their company: that is a bad employer. Company structure overall, not remote work, is to blame for not providing networking opportunities. If the remote experience for new employees continues to be poor, those companies will likely see attrition similar to companies that announce their return-to-office plans.
I’m not discounting that remote work is not for everyone. Some people enjoy social interactions. But it’s also possible that those interactions may not exist, or may be harder to find.
I talked to someone recently who went back into the office as soon as his company allowed. He missed interacting with his team. On his first day back, he was the only one there. His entire team had decided to continue working from home.
This shows that for any company adopting a hybrid model, the networking needs to be facilitated equally between in-office and remote employees; otherwise, the company will end up with disparate teams.
Finding better opportunities for networking
Or — perhaps we need to stop associating “work” as the primary means of networking.
Relying on the office for networking and social interactions might have been more true before the internet. But now, networking — even for young professionals — can happen in many different ways. LinkedIn has become the hub for meeting new people in one’s industry; I’ve connected with many this way. There’s also no shortage of Slack channels and other online forums. I’m in two professional groups that meet regularly for virtual happy hours.
In reality, these other channels might be a better fit. While colleagues have work in common, the similarities may end there. Commiseration, advice, introductions… these can all come from people who are not tied to a job at all.
Maybe we’ve associated networking with the office for a long time because that was the obvious opportunity to grow professionally. But it’s not the only opportunity.
In the News: Bank of America returns to office 5 days per week
While many companies are adopting permanently remote or models, Bank of America plans to bring its employees back to the office five days per week. Gioia Mccarthy, the market president for San Francisco and Easy Bay, is trying to “make it fun” for employees that are being forced to return. She also said that the onus is on managers to create a great working environment (which has an underlying assumption that managers want to be in the office).
News has cropped up around the company about increasing office parties, bringing in lunches, or having time for breaks during the day. Like that the promise of cupcakes offsets a commute and lack of flexibility somehow.
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