Over the past years, our focus has shifted towards a smaller number of close relationships, but research shows that people with strong and diverse networks are happier, live longer and earn more money.
As we exit gingerly out of the pandemic, there has been little talk of the collateral damage that has ensued from a dramatic shrinkage in our networks. Social Chemistry, the recent book by Marissa King, a Yale University professor, lays out the price that has been paid over the last 16 months. But there is a twist, her research found men’s networks have decreased by 30 per cent whereas woman’s networks haven’t decreased at all. King explains that while men enjoy doing things together like going for a drink, watching or playing sports, women like to talk to maintain their emotional closeness.
Whatever the truth is that it is obvious that most of us have hunkered down during Covid-19 and shifted time and attention away from weak connections to strengthen relationships with families and close friends. This could be as few as five to ten people and therein lies the problem. Our weak connections are important because they connect us with different types of people in different places and help build diversity in our networks. They counter the tendency toward homophily- a fancy word of Greek origin which refers to the tendency we all have to spend time with people just like ourselves. This tendency is understandable but does not help diversity in thought and action.
There is a price to be paid for only interacting with a small tight network. It makes getting a job more difficult, it affects career progress and it reduces the potential for random connections. Remote working has had a negative impact on business development. It has decreased the sense of belonging, increased the risk of staff turnover and reduced the potential for chance encounters and the “meetings after the meetings”. Even the vocabulary is emotionally charged. Social distancing should really be physical distancing and remote working which speaks of loneliness and isolation should really be referred to as digital working.
Now we need to dust off our rusty networking skills and rebuild our networks. Research shows that people who have strong and diverse networks live longer, are stronger mentally and physically, earn more money and are happier. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. You have to network your way to success. In a world where life is a game of inches, you are going to need every possible competitive advantage you can get, and your network can make the difference. One introduction or one conversation can change your life. But these connections don’t happen when you are lying in bed or sitting at your desk. They happen when you are in motion, when you are out and about, when you talk to strangers, when you put your talents on display, when you become a good speaker, build a reputation, develop an online presence, and take control of your own career playbook.
Building these networks will mean investing in yourself becoming a world-class listener, making luck and serendipity work for you and being both hi-tech and hi-touch. Think of your network like building up air miles which you do over a period of time and then every so often they come in really handy.
Companies need to play a role here in facilitating their employees to become better at networking and helping them with training and support. They need to embrace and encourage a culture of networking; hire people who are good at it; make it a key performance indicator; break down internalization and realise there are more people outside their company than inside their company. By accessing the power of network intelligence employers can use their staff as a way of finding out what is happening in their sector, segment, or industry. They can physically open up their company and host events for diverse audiences and invite them in. They should consider developing networks of alumni, people who used to work for the company but have moved on.
Sadly, most schools and colleges don’t teach networking and companies don’t have strategies for it. It is something everyone agrees is essential but is not urgent and we all spend our time doing urgent things. Everything we do in school or college has a metric aspect to it. A mark, grade, or score. When you get into the real business world, however, there is a whole set of unwritten rules and attributes that really count but can’t be counted. These include empathy, attitude, character, personality, trust and many more. They get reflected in all the small daily activities we are involved in and become habits and then rituals and part of who we are. These are essential soft skills which are often hard to do well.
Now here’s a clear call to action to take networking out of hibernation and put it front and centre in our post-Covid world and also do what we all crave to do, connect with other people.
Finally, consider the following question: when you reflect on your life and career to date, were the most memorable experiences spent in front of a screen or with other people?
Need I say more?
by Kingsley Aikins for Chartered Accountants