In the first few months of the pandemic, some of us were so accustomed to constantly connecting with others that we were excited to take solace in any social contact, even Zoom happy hours and virtual game nights.
As the weeks and months stretched to a year and then two years, replacing in-person networking events with online ones lost its appeal and became another energetic drain. In the process, many of us also let our “social muscles” atrophy. So, how do we begin to network again?
Why Rebuilding Our Social Networks Feels Difficult
As we come out of social isolation (if not the pandemic itself), many of us are a bundle of contrasts. We’re eager to reconnect yet too exhausted to socialize. We miss our friends and former lives yet often feel underwhelmed when we revisit the pre-pandemic people and places we adored.
We crave connection with others yet often feel strained and drained when we reconnect. In short, we crave connections and feel repelled by them, leading to increased cognitive dissonance (ie, we seem to desire something we are also struggling to embrace).
Worse yet, there are indications that we’re currently experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. One recent Harvard study found that in early 2021, more than a third of US adults were suffering from serious loneliness—feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.”
Unfortunately, after two years of perceiving other people, including close friends, as potential threats to our health (sources of infection), many of us are less physically and mentally well now than we were pre-pandemic, which seems to be making it even more difficult to break the cycle of loneliness.
Four Ways to Start Rebuilding Social Networks at Work and in Life
To start rebuilding your networking muscles, try these simple steps:
- Reflect on what is already working: By now, most of us have had at least a few chances to retest the waters. Reflect on the relationships, social events, and networking opportunities that have left you re-energized versus drained. Think about what made the re-energizing ones so great and what drained you about the other events? Consider how different factors, including the presence or absence of Covid-19 risks, impacted your experience.
- Build more social networking opportunities into work events: If you’re in an industry where people haven’t seen each other in person for over two years, assume that your first few in-person events will be different from anything you hosted pre-pandemic. As a rule of thumb, build more rather than less networking time into meetings, conferences, or other work events.
After all, it may take more time and structure than it did in the past for people to break through and start collaborating. On an individual level, there are also things you can do to start reconnecting.
If you’re planning to attend an in-person event and you know you’ll be reconnecting with colleagues you haven’t seen in two years, plan to arrive early to give yourself more time to reconnect before you dive into structured discussions and work .
- Rebuild report: Like trust, our ability to establish rapport with others has been compromised by two years of isolation. While many of us continued to build rapport online, rapport building in-person versus online or in hybrid settings is remarkably different.
The good news is that it is also generally easier to build rapport in person. Still, set aside additional time for rapport building as you reconnect with coworkers and other professional peers.
- Rebuild trust: All relationships need care and feeding. As you rekindle in-person connections, be prepared to rebuild trust with everyone you encounter. Even if you’ve been regularly interacting online, in-person encounters are different. Create space to share, listen, and reconnect. Be deeply curious about what your peers have been doing since you last connected in person and what they are doing now.
Pre-pandemic, it was easy to take one’s networking skills for granted. As we shift from networking on social media and work platforms to networking in person again, it is important to pause and reflect on what has changed and what we need to do to put our interlocutors at ease.