Networking in 2021: Whys and Hows of the Process
Previously, we would run into our colleagues and make new professional connections at live events, lectures and conferences. But the coronavirus crisis and the global digitalization of all the processes have made their own adjustments to the way the world in general and the professional world in particular functions.
Due to lockdowns and closed borders, we make new acquaintances at online conferences and meetings in Zoom, Google Meet and other online services. It’s neither good nor bad, it's a new reality, with which we have already managed to come to terms and are getting accustomed to more and more every day.
So what comes next and how this new reality will evolve — with elements of AR, VR, gamification? What place will real meetings take in it, will there even be room for them at all? We decided to discuss all of this with several product designers who are actively involved in networking and have valuable experience to share.
Aaron Butler, Product Designer at Grubhub
Aaron came to design through an exploration of music notation. Writing for instrumentalists is where he learned how to communicate physical actions through symbology and to empathize with a user's needs and constraints. He is based in the Boston area and at his current role, he works as a mobile product designer with responsibilities such as refactoring legacy designs, creating components, and maintaining the design system, as well as research, ideation, and the creation of entirely new features.
Think of Networking as Making Friends
When I was trying to get my first job I tried a lot of different approaches – going to events, cold-messaging people on LinkedIn, messaging people through their portfolios and so on. Now that I'm employed I get a lot of these messages, and I can immediately see which ones are sincere and which are just written in hope of getting an ‘in.’ People can sense when you’re just using them, and they don’t like it.
My most successful networking happened when I just went in with the intention of making friends. I didn't ask for anything in return. I didn't follow up with a message asking for a referral. I just went to connect with people. What I ended up with was a lot better than a transient network, I made real friends at multiple companies. Today I feel confident that these friends would want to give me a referral because who doesn't want to work with their friend?
One gives the other person a choice to help however they can, the other tells them how you think it would be best for them to help. For instance, I get asked for referrals sometimes for jobs in different departments where my referral wouldn't mean much.
The referral that got me an interview, back in the days when I was just starting off, came from a friend. We'd been friends for years, since before I'd gotten into tech. He happened to be a QA engineer at the company I liked, and at some point he talked to the design manager and referred me internally. This got me the interview. From then on it was on me, but without that first step, it most likely wouldn't have happened.
Don’t Forget to Be Grateful
I bought a lot of people coffee and beer. Because If someone’s taking their time to meet up with you, the least you can offer in return is to pay for their drink. It’s hard of course to do it now, when everything is online. But I’ll just say, that even now the best way to show appreciation for someone’s time is by acting on their advice and feedback. After I give portfolio feedback, it feels great when I look at it a few days later and see some changes.
Sometimes that’s hard to show, if it’s not something as obvious as a portfolio. But even sending a follow-up message saying ‘Hey, thanks again for the chat. Just wanted to let you know I did X and it’s been really helpful. Talk soon!’ is sometimes enough.
Where to Network Today?
There’s a number of different ways to network – LinkedIn, networking-specific events, industry-specific events that may not be directly intended for networking, meetups. Also, UXPA often organizes professional events, and if you go to a bootcamp — that generally comes with some sort of network. Another effective networking tool is the design community on Medium. There are lots of people, including myself, writing articles about UX and other design-related topics. Responding and/or asking questions on these articles can start a relationship with someone in the field.
Networking in the Post-Pandemic World
In my opinion, the most effective and fun way to network is in person. Before 2020, there were events I had continued to attend just to see some of my friends and colleagues. So for me the inability to network in person is rough.
But different people respond differently to everything moving online, and I do think that certain digital events will continue to happen, allowing people to network more effectively in areas other than where they live. This is especially important for people living in rural areas, and even more important considering the increase in permanent remote work.
I also think that after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, there will be an explosion of offline networking events. Many companies and organizations will be wanting to catch up after missing many regular events. I'm excited to see what that will look like.
Tips for building a network
- Go in with a manageable goal.
I often went to events with the goal of making 1 LinkedIn connection.
- When you message someone, come with a specific question.
And don't mention any job openings you've seen. Just try to have a conversation with that person.
- Go to all kinds of events.
Even those that might not be directly intended as networking ones. I went to various seminars and webinars, social events that were just for tech people, events at museums, etc.
- Use the LinkedIn QR function to make it easier for people to find you.
Especially if your last name is spelled in a complicated way. The secondary benefit is that the screen serves as a sort of beacon. All of a sudden, everyone wants in on the connection action.
- Do not be afraid to say you're looking for a job.
I was embarrassed to say I didn't have a job at first. When people asked, I'd say I was working on some freelance projects. When I started saying I was a designer looking for work, people immediately started introducing me to those who could help.
- Be open to new connections at any time.
Networking can happen at weird moments. I was once in an elevator, and a woman asked me what I did for work. I told her I was a product designer and ended up with an interview a week later at the company where she worked. The important thing is to make sure you have a clear answer for what you do and why so you end up in a nice, potentially beneficial conversation instead of an awkward one.
Nathan Covert, Product Designer
Nathan is a product designer based in Washington, D.C. He considers himself a generalist and prefers working in early-stage startups. He likes taking ownership of the entire product design process: from research and wireframes all the way to testing high fidelity prototypes.
Networking Is One of the Most Valuable Skills You Can Learn as a Designer
In America, one of the biggest arguments to go to college is to build a strong network in your industry. Having a strong network gives you some comfort when things go wrong. By having a strong network, you can take risks while having a safety net of people who can help when you need it. The obvious example is all the layoffs that happened in March and April of 2020. It goes both ways too: I had to help some friends who got laid off during the Covid peak in March. It's especially important in the tech and startup world, where layoffs and company closures are common.
Before the Pandemic, It Was Easy to Do In-Person Networking
When I first moved to Denver in 2018, I went to career meetups, visited design studios and other startups. If possible, I think these in-person connections are more valuable and personal. There is a level of trust that is built in shaking hands and meeting someone physically.
Networking in Times of Pandemic — the Pros and Cons
To start with the cons — you lose the connection that happens in person. I loved meeting people at coffee shops and offline events. For instance, Denver used to hold weekly UX meetups, which was an easy way to grow a network and feel a part of the design community.
But the pros might actually outweigh the cons. I had to switch jobs during the pandemic, and initially, I thought that due to the economic shake-up and the hiring freezes, this would be difficult. Instead, I ended up having 4-5 remote interviews a week, and the best part is that they were for companies based all over the world. I had interviews in London, New York, Los Angeles and even Malaysia. Remote work made it easier to network and start conversations across the globe.
Networking in 2021 Will Be Hybrid
We might see some creative networking events pop up, Zoom happy hours will continue, maybe there will even be fully remote retreats. Conferences were a big thing before the pandemic, and I think we'll see some social distance conferences in some capacity too.
Tips for Building a Network
- Be sincere and find a personal approach.
Nobody wants to connect with someone who sounds generic and has most likely copied and pasted the message multiple times.
- Build trust.
It’s acquired through honesty and being genuine. If someone is doing great work, you can complement by telling them how much you appreciate their work. This creates an instant connection because the feelings are genuine.
- Leverage your environment professionally.
A network is basically anyone you know, and even lawyers and doctors need design nowadays.
- Be open to making connections everywhere you go.
Before people had to go to college to build a professional network, fortunately, this is no longer the case. I've made some incredible friends on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Kasey Randall, Senior Interaction Designer at SiriusXM
Kasey is an adventurer, storyteller, and design entrepreneur, helping shape how people experience the digital world around them. His intuitive eye for core experience and passion for great design result in truly engaging interactions. As a successful UX and Interaction Designer, clients and teams have come to rely on Kasey to deliver highly impactful, end-to-end digital solutions across web, mobile, and software.
It’s a Mistake to Consider Networking as a Tool to Climb the Social Ladder
By definition, networking is the ‘action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.’ So, in fact, it’s a way for like-minded professionals to spark inspiration and get ideas flowing.
Not Everyone Needs to Network
It’s important to know that you don't have to network in order to fulfill your definition of success. I’ve been considered a ‘social butterfly’ most of my life. I enjoy meeting new people, hearing different stories and expanding my horizons. I’m drawn to that. Some people aren’t, and that's okay too.
Before and After the Pandemic
We used to network at social gatherings, parties, meetups, events, and other get-togethers. Usually, you would speak to someone you found interesting, exchange business cards (and appreciate the attention to detail if they were a creative professional), and then connect on LinkedIn the next day to continue the conversation there.
Everything has changed due to the pandemic. Everyone’s life has been affected by this situation in some way. As designers, we should be flexible and adaptable. We’ve been pushed to adopt digital forms of collaboration such as Invision Freehand, Miro, and other tools.
Being a former freelancer, I had become accustomed to and adopted this ‘work-from-anywhere’ mentality and process a long time ago. I was familiar with collaboration tools and worked with clients and teams around the world. But not everyone is familiar with collaborating or communicating remotely, and I have seen peers struggle with adapting to this new sense of normal.
Networking, like collaboration, works a lot differently today, and there’s no way around it. Organizations were forced to adopt communication tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and so on. Meetups and groups embraced virtual events to continue being awesome, so there are ways to stay in touch. I utilize social media, primarily LinkedIn, to share insights and advice to my fellow colleagues through posts titled ‘Dear Designer.’
In the future, I think networking will still remain virtual for a better part of the year, but I do see an emergence of in-person events. Humans are social creatures, and we need that human interaction. Well, most of us do.
Tips for Building a Network
- Remember well what networking truly is about.
It’s about creating memorable and valuable friendships/relationships.
- Find your tribe, but don’t be afraid if your opinions sometimes vary.
You should seek out those that are like you and have similar interests but also not be afraid of them having different or even competing opinions or values. An echo chamber is not a good thing. If you aren't being challenged, you aren't growing.
- Start with online groups such as Meetups that you're interested in.
Whether that's UX, tech, dogs, make sure to reach out to others, especially leaders in their field. Most of the time, they're more than happy to let you pick their brain. But keep in mind that time is valuable, so when you commit to chatting, commit to it, and avoid missing scheduled calls, no matter how informal.
- Don’t forget to give back and check in on others.
Make sure to do it once in a while and see how someone's doing on a human level. You never know what's going on in their lives and especially now, with this pandemic casting a large dark cloud over us, it's important that we keep up with our friends, peers, and loved ones.
Yulia Golyan, Product Designer at McGarryBowen
Yulia is a Product Designer with a very critical mindset, living in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last couple of years, feeling very excited about all the changes happening in the world. She also likes yoga a lot.
Meeting New People is Never Easy, But Always Worthy
For me, networking has always been a great way to meet professionals in new locations. I moved quite a lot, so various workshops and networking sessions would always help me to meet people from the industry. Getting into a room full of new people with different levels of expertise in your professional area is always refreshing and challenging. A networking event can result in new professional connections, valuable insights, and always new ideas.
In our pre-pandemic world, such events were commonly avoided by certain people, as not everyone feels comfortable being in a room full of strangers. Now more people allow themselves to explore various professional areas through online networking since online-communication is long known to feel less intrusive. For people who can navigate their communication paths and follow their goals, online networking opened new doors. I personally consider myself one of these people.
Of course, there are little details that are currently missing, such as a surprise conversation that you’d have after you bumped into someone, trying to get that slice of pizza, or when you were chatting with people before a workshop only to realize that you came to a wrong room, and they’re waiting for a pottery workshop. What’s important is that you would get valuable knowledge in any case.
Quantity Over Quality
I always thought networking was challenging because I’d leave a networking session with two new contacts when other people I know would have 10 new LinkedIn connections afterwards. However, with time I realized that quantity is not that important if you managed to get yourself a quality connection through a networking session.
Networking Offers You a Whole New Way of Looking at Yourself
It is common to give self-presentation when visiting networking events, and sometimes people’s reactions can truly surprise you, making you think: ‘Wow, I seriously kick-ass.’ That’s because some things that we consider ordinary about ourselves can cause smiles, excitement, or even admiration of other people.
It’s Important to Sync Your Attitude to Your Goals
When I participate in a networking session, I try to set up specific goals for myself. Maybe I work on a project that I’d like feedback on, or I’m learning something new and I’d love to find a mentor, or perhaps I am thinking of changing the main direction of my work. I need to adjust my attitude on a case-by-case basis and build conversations in a different manner every time to get the most significant benefit out of every interaction.
There’s Probably no Way Back, but What Awaits Us After the Pandemic Is Rather Exciting
I guess we all agree that we’re not going back to our pre-pandemic selves. Networking is not going there either. With so many people moving away from big cities to lead calmer and more affordable lives with their families, many events will stay in an online space. But since many of us feel fatigued and tired of being separated from our teams and real-life professional communication, networking will also get hybrid and people will have a choice — to visit some events in person, to join workshops from anywhere in the world or even to use AR to increase their presence at certain events.
I also believe gamification will become a massive part of human interactions. I am not saying we’re going full Oasis from Ready Player One, but I do believe that this is the direction for some areas of life at least, so virtual reality networking events might come to place earlier than we think. And I am excited about that.
Tips for Building a Network
- Just start doing it.
There’s no right way to start networking; you just need to get into it. Even if it might feel uncomfortable at first or not bring the results you were sometimes expecting.
- Attend networking events on your own.
This way, you won’t be attached or depend on your friend/colleague.
- Bring something to the table.
Don’t just expect others to give you the knowledge, show your value, help people and be kind.
It was clear that we were moving towards a more hybrid type of networking even before the global coronavirus crisis, so COVID-19 just served as a catalyst and accelerator for the processes that were bound to happen anyway. However our working reality may change, networking was, is and will always be relevant, but its form will continue to evolve. One thing’s certain, in a rapidly changing world, one will need to adapt quickly to various interaction formats — be it l be live events or online conferences with the use of advanced AR, VR and gamification technologies.
A List of Network-Specific And Mentorship-Related Resources For Networking And to Find Mentor
- UX Coffee Hours
A volunteer driven platform where UXers connect with each other over a virtual cup of coffee for free.
- Ladies that UX
A collaborative community created specially to help promote women in UX. Runs local groups in many cities worldwide and provides aspiring designers with mentorship through annual sprints.
A platform for finding like-minded people in any possible area — for professional or personal purposes. Not only can you join a community, but also build one yourself from scratch.
The creators of the app do not position it as a specifically networking one, but it might work well for that purpose. Each person is asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire and tell about themselves, then the algorithm will select similar people and match you, so you can go out for breakfast and chat (hence the name of the app). Access can be obtained either through an invitation from friends or through strict selection.
Want to share your opinion on modern design and networking in the post-pandemic world? Send your ideas to email@example.com with the subject 'Networking Ideas’.
Written by Susanna Agababyan