While the pandemic took many traditional networking opportunities away, especially for the generation just entering the workforce, at least one HR expert says new grads and young professionals are creating their own opportunities to build connections.
Karen Brownrigg, founder and CEO of iHR Advisory Services, says the pandemic and the increased popularity of remote work have permanently changed the networking game.
“I’m a fan of in-person networking,” she said. “There’s no better way to develop and nurture relationships than when you’re doing it in person. So when you’re trying to do it remotely, you just can’t establish the same connection.”
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While online networking events were a necessity at the height of the pandemic, they haven’t taken over, even as restrictions have lifted. In fact, Brownrigg said in-person events have made a comeback and young workers are leading the charge.
“There’s some really interesting opportunities,” she said. “I think with the pandemic we saw that this is a very specific group from our community that was robbed of that ability to develop relationships with mentors and people they need in their network because of all the isolation that took place. So these groups started to form on their own, with young professionals at the helm.”
Brownrigg is referring to a recent trend she’s noticed of young people creating networking and social groups to create online communities that translate into in-person events. While there are groups of young professionals in different industries, there are also groups formed around volunteering, charities, hobbies and other interests.
“It’s an opportunity (for them) to learn from each other and to engage,” she said. “They’re building their own personal brand by posting on social media, learning from each other and posting new ideas. But there’s no better way to build your brand and create a broader network than to engage with something you’re passionate about with people who share the same interest.”
She added that social networking based on personal interests can be just as valuable for career success as professional networking. “It’s a beautiful way to build your network that goes above and beyond some of the traditional things we used to do,” Brownrigg said.
Sarwar Qureshi has run a local group called Beyond Networking for almost ten years. He said he’s also seen a change in how people approach networking.
“There’s different camps of people. There’s some people who are less inclined to network because their outlook on networking has changed or they’re working online and feel they don’t need to network as much,” he said.
“And then I have another group where people are more interested because they’re doing remote work and they’ve lost some of the social contact, the adult conversation, that they used to have when they were in the office full time.”
Networking groups like his provide a wide range of events to fit participants’ interests, taking some of the friction out of meeting other professionals, he said. Beyond Networking has hosted picnics, soireés, paint nights and hockey outings, with participants ranging in age and profession.
Events such as these help early career professionals find mentors, build a resource base and make connections that can open doors, he added.
“The people you meet while networking, those people can become lifelong friends, bring career opportunities or become business partners,” said Qureshi. “You just never know what will happen.”
He said he has heard from many young people who feel like they’ve fallen behind because of the lack of opportunities to network in university brought about by the pandemic.
“They didn’t do the typical in-person social events for a good two years,” he said. “They missed out on opportunities to build what would have been core skills that they needed. It’s like riding a bike. Once you’ve learned, you can pick it back up again later, but if you’ve never learned, it can be kind of awkward to start.”
It’s easier to get your foot in the door than it seems, according to Brownrigg. She encourages young professionals to use the internet to search out events and groups that fit their interests.
To combat any nervous jitters, she suggests either bringing a friend or, if that’s not an option, singling out one friendly face to make a connection.
“Say hello and tell them you’ve got the jitters,” she said. “You’ll often make a friend who can walk around and introduce you to people or maybe they’ll share your nerves.”