Opinion: How the networking world adapted to a world without handshakes
By Bill Saleebey
People in my networking group were getting dressed and ready to go to the board room of a law firm, as we did every fourth Wednesday morning at 7:30 a.m. We had on our business suits and name tags, and we were ready to network. Our photo IDs were in hand to get us through security.
Hold on there!
There was something happening back in March that we then called the novel coronavirus. No one had any idea that this virus would kill more than 400,000 Americans by January 2021.
We stopped cold in our homes, as we were told by our governor to “shelter in place,” whatever that meant. We dutifully downloaded the Zoom app, checked our internet connection and Zoomed in to the meeting.
Few of us knew anything about Zoom technology, but we had faith that our networking group management knew what they were doing. We cobbled together a background in our home office, such as it was at the time. We made sure we had light shining toward us so that we didn’t appear like we were in the Witness Protection Program.
We didn’t have any clear idea how long this stay at home order would last, or that COVID-19 would devastate our nation for many months. All we really knew was that it seemed to be getting worse by the day.
People in networking groups had grown accustomed to meeting in person. That involved getting up early, driving in traffic, finding parking, going through security, riding an elevator and finding a seat in a crowded board room.
There was ample coffee and a delicious buffet for those who were hungry. Prior to the meeting, there was schmoozing and introductions.
The meeting, designed to build our networks both wide and deep, lasted until 9 a.m. After the meeting, we might walk to the elevator or parking area and continue chatting with those headed in the same direction as us. That’s the way it was in February, 2020.
More than 10 months later, we are still meeting remotely, much to the chagrin of many members of the networking group. Most people prefer to meet in person, for a variety of reasons. However, we have been Zooming for months, with no end in sight. Vaccines are still some time away from being widely available.
Over this time we have become increasingly proficient using Zoom technology. Some people have installed virtual backgrounds, gotten fancy lights, microphones and headsets, enhanced their appearances and embraced virtual communication. Others, not so much.
In numerous interviews with networking group members and leaders, I have found that the majority of people are keen to get back to the way things were. Other than the convenience of meeting from home (or office), the downsides of Zoom seem to outweigh the positives. Especially for newer members, meeting in person is much preferable.
But Zoom is all we have for now, and the best approach is to accept the way things are, to adapt, and do the best we can with what we have.
Zoom meetings have become the “new normal.” There are actually people joining my networking groups who have never been to an in-person meeting. Since the current format is all they have known, they seem less determined to get back into the board room.
There is talk among leaders of networking organizations about having a “hybrid” meeting, where some people attend in person so that they can socially distance themselves from one another, and the remaining people call in via Zoom. The conference rooms would be equipped with laptops and Owls, a multi-directional microphone. This format has yet to be implemented as long as social distancing persists.
Though we may prefer to meet in person, Zoom and other virtual channels provide us with the opportunity to connect. We can see each other, hear each other, and share referrals and introductions. This situation led to my third networking book, “Networking in the Virtual Age,” which examines our current situation and how we can still connect when our “normal” world is upended.
• Bill Saleebey is a Ventura resident and an expert on the psychology of business networking.