Why Virtual Networking can be good for Everyone, not just Introverts

Many, lament the loss of face to face networking this year. As an Introvert I don’t share their grief. In fact, quite the opposite.  I am revelling in the experience of virtual networking. Not only do I not miss rushing to evening or early morning events, arranging childcare, and sitting in traffic but I actually prefer and find the virtual experience to be more enjoyable and effective.

Networking, I have come to appreciate is important for career development and personal growth, but this year as a new business owner it has been critical for me to connect with others, stay motivated, find support, share challenges, learn and enjoy meeting new people. Particularly important during lockdown when we were stuck within a 2K zone around our house; networking became a link to the outside world.

Do you remember the traditional networking experience? Walking into a big room filled with people huddled in groups, people standing on their own nursing a drink hoping to speak to someone or others like me who latch onto the first person they know just to get over the discomfort of standing awkwardly in a sea of people wondering why you decided to come to the event at all. It was all quite honestly something I dreaded to do. Despite the inaccurate stereotypical perception of introverts as anti-social I love to meet new people. I am very curious and love learning about people and their work. I just prefer to do it in small groups or one to one.

How effective were those traditional events anyway? Angela Bahns, an American Psychology Professor has studied the way in which social networks were formed particularly in academic institutions. She found, that the larger the context the narrower peoples’ social connections were. Her research showed that in large Universities with over 30,000 students, people formed more homogenous social networks than in smaller Universities with only a few hundred students. In other words, in a really large group we will go for like minded people or people we know. Paul Ingram, Professor at Columbia Business School created an experiment where 100 people were invited to a mixer event in NY. In a pre-mixer survey, many attendees said their primary purpose was to make new contacts. What did they find? People spend their time talking to the few other guests they know well.

In the virtual networking scenario, I log in from the comfort of my home workspace, I feel much more comfortable and confident than walking into a crowded room and many introverts I have spoken with attest to this increased confidence when working from home. Everyone is on an equal footing. Dominant and quieter personalities pressed into the same 2×2 box. The organiser of the event takes the lead. As an introvert I possess great leadership skills but I am more than happy when someone wants to take the reins. This organiser will assign me to a breakout room of 3-4 people. Imagine trying to do this in a face to face setting in such an organised manner; like herding sheep. As an introvert I like structure and prefer small groups. I get 10-15 minutes to learn about the people in my group. Introverts prefer depth to small talk and while small talk gets a conversation started, in many breakout rooms I have attended this year a topic was given to discuss. This allowed for a much more in-depth conversation than the typical small talk prior to a traditional networking event. No awkward ending of conversations either, the organiser pulls me straight back into the main room.

In a smaller group typical of virtual networking our pool is narrower and we are forced to mingle with who is there. This has multiple benefits. We are pushed to expand our network and not just speak to who we know. Connecting with others from different fields and backgrounds brings diversity of thought and sparks creativity. It allows us to share our work with a new audience, learn from their experiences and perhaps develop our ideas further or address shortcomings in our thinking.

This pandemic has afforded us some opportunities to which we should grab onto. An opportunity to innovate, to move away from traditional approaches just because that is how it has been done. Matthew Syed, author of Rebel Ideas suggests you take core notions and turn them on their head. If networking has been done one way what would it look like if it was done in a totally different manner? Is there a hybrid model that combines face to face with virtual, small group with large? Or will we miss the opportunity to innovate networking for the next decade?

Aoife Lenox is The Introvert Coach, Trainer and Consultant designing work practices that promote well-being, increased communication and engagement from introvert personalities.