Maintaining Strong Professional Relationships in the Social Distancing Era: A Guide

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To state the obvious, we are in the midst of one of the biggest economic and public health events of our time. The ripple effects range from the existential (friends and family members dying or critically ill, companies shuttering or laying off workers) to the unfortunate (weddings and graduations canceled, travel bans). Put simply – times are tough.

And in tough times, engaging with peers, colleagues and other trusted relationships can help you navigate through the difficult moments. In addition to any direct assistance you receive, deeper, high-quality connections with your network have a range of positive impacts: better mental performance and mental health, higher levels of cooperation and trust, and even better immune system responses – all of which are at a premium in our current environment. For heavily relationship-driven industries, there are also direct business benefits – for high-value decisions that have historically required face to face meetings, decision-makers are more comfortable proceeding with those who have invested in long-term relationships ahead of time.

“Your network is your destiny, a reality backed up by many studies in the newly emergent fields of social networking and social contagion theory. We are the people we interact with.”

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Keith Ferazzi

Author, Never Eat Alone

Moreover, there’s robust evidence that shared difficult experiences create stronger bonds – suggesting that investments you make in your network in this time have a disproportionate payoff (in addition to being the right thing to do!).

To help, we’ve put together this handbook – both to explain the case for why investing in your professional relationships deserves your focus now, and packed with tactics to help you successfully do so. There’s a lot of content that you may not finish in one sitting – feel free to revisit this guide down the line as you need additional ideas, or just some motivation!

It won’t ‘just happen’ – the case for being intentional

When we went through the recession of 2008, what I found where people who struggled the most were not deliberate about building a network that supported them in whatever they were trying to do – find a job, create a business. This is the time to be dedicated and deliberate about how you approach relationships.

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John Hill

VP Network, Techstars

You can’t expect the benefits of strong relationships to accrue without focus and effort – in fact, they may be easier to lose sight of than normal. A convergence of factors makes being intentional about maintaining relationships more critical than ever:

  • Less serendipitous, face-to-face interaction: in heavily relationship-driven industries, there are lots of offline meetings, meals, and other gatherings that allow you to reconnect with team members and industry peers. In our current socially distant world, those all disappear – removing a key source of connectivity. Moreover, there’s evidence that face to face interactions are significantly more impactful than text alone, suggesting that filling the void left behind will require more effort.
  • More competing priorities: in normal times, you’re already incredibly busy. Now, in addition to your traditional workload, you’re also dealing with the fallout of the spread of COVID-19 and its many implications. These stretch across personal and professional boundaries – figuring out how to work remotely and stay productive, homeschooling kids with schools shut down, and maintaining a semblance of personal well-being. This makes it more convenient to deal with the ‘urgent’ while investing less in the relationships that enable you to succeed.
  • Your community needs you more than ever: with such a widespread impact, people you know are likely struggling. Being a source of support in a moment of need is not only the right thing to do, but also allows you to elevate your relationships beyond just the professional.

In short, investing in your relationship network at this time is both critical and challenging. And like most critical and challenging goals, you’ll need a plan to help you translate good intentions into action and results.

Relationship building tactics

While strengthening and maintaining your network in this environment will take attention, there are a range of different tactics at your disposal to help. See below for an (incomplete) list to get some inspiration – we’ll continue to add to it over time!

Support

  • Show up and check in – We’re all dealing with the impact of coronavirus and its fallout. While there’s definitely a spectrum of severity, there are very few people whose lives have not been disrupted in some way. This is the time to check in with your mentors, colleagues, and other close connections – people within your network are humans like you. Simply making sure they’re doing OK, offering to listen and understanding what they might need is a great first step – even if you can’t provide real actionable solutions, “the right answers”, or any answers at all.

In these unprecedented times, the best thing we can do to build stronger, long-lasting relationships is to JCI (Just Check In) with those around us.

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Kelly Hoey

Author, Build Your Dream Network
  • Build community digitally – Find ways to bring people together digitally in lieu of physically.
    • Group Zoom calls – a good mechanism for people to reconnect, share tactics, and maintain bonds. These can be themed (e.g., SBA loans 101, handling layoffs, fitness), or more freeform in nature.
    • Group messaging – giving groups another mechanism to stay in sync, share tips and resources, and maintain bonds. Slack is a prominent solution for this use case, but Whatsapp groups, email listservs, and other forums can work as well.

Proactively seek out ways to connect with people, and be creative with socializing – including virtual happy hours, board games, book clubs, workouts, binge watching, etc.

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Chalyse Elsasser

Coach, MindMaven
  • Ditch ‘let me know how I can be helpful’ – and actually help.You likely won’t have to look hard to find ways to be valuable to your friends, connections, and community – so ask and take action! An incomplete list of ideas below:
    • Job connections – 3M+ people in the United States have filed for unemployment in one week as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s likely that your network both has people who lost their jobs, and people that are looking to hire. Your relationships have the potential to be a powerful lever in helping those people get back to work and be productive.
      • If you know folks that are hiring:
        • Send them candidates you know directly
        • Send them news of layoffs (which represents potential talent they can hire)
        • Amplify their hiring posts on social channels to broaden exposure to those out of a job
      • If you know folks that are looking:
        • Help them get connected to companies that are hiring
        • Send news of companies that have mentioned they are hiring (in either public or private channels)
        • Connect them to hubs of people that have a broad purview of companies hiring (e.g., VPs of talent at VC / PE firms, recruiters)
        • Connect them to digital communities of job seekers – e.g., Chicago Superstars, Monday job boards, Upstream job boards.
        • Help them navigate the search for a new position (e.g., resume reviews, interview prep, sending them skill building resources, etc.).

“Johnny, I heard you just left the company. I doubt you need it, but I’m sending you the info for three headhunters I’ve found to be most useful. Feel free to tell them I sent you…”

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Mike Steib

CEO, Artsy

Quote from: “Don’t Just Network — Build Your ‘Meaningful Network’ to Maximize Your Impact”
  • Funding connections – with the economic fallout estimated to last anywhere from a couple of months to years, companies that only a few weeks ago felt good about their cash position are now looking for ways to fund themselves to weather the storm. At the same time, the need to fund existing portfolio companies and overall skittishness given the macroclimate likely means the bar has moved up for businesses looking to raise outside capital. Helping companies navigate that storm at a critical time could make the difference between survival and shutting down.
    • Introduction to capital sources – where you have strong relationships and believe in the company, a warm introduction can make a world of difference for obtaining an equity investment. Outside of equity funding, you can also help teams understand other funding options (grants, revenue-based financing, etc.) available to them.
    • Resources about government assistance programs – with the CARES ACT passage (and potentially more stimulus on the way), SBA + regional funding may also be another lifeline. Ensuring those in your network know about these programs and any resources on how to access them can help tremendously.
  • Support COVID-19 initiatives – our world is responding in inspiring ways to help soften the blow of all the layoffs and limit the spread of the virus – from increasing the supply of N95 masks and other protective equipment, developing rapid tests, fundraising for small businesses, and more. Devoting resources (time, people, $) and amplifying those efforts can help soften the blow to vulnerable populations, get us all back to work faster, and build connections with those in your network leading or supporting those efforts.
  • Share knowledge and resources – we’re all ramping up on (and, honestly, scrambling to figure out) how to work, live and grow in our current environment, across multiple dimensions. The questions stretch from existential (should I go see my aging parents?) to business (how much of a hit should I expect to revenue?, how do I keep my team coordinated?), to social (how do I stay in close contact with friends I can no longer see?).
    • Share prior experiences: if you have lessons learned from previous economic downturns, or a plan for how you’ll be attacking this one, sharing it with your network can help others do the same.
    • Share functional / industry expertise: every role in an organization is impacted by the shift to our new economic climate. Maximizing cash flow, reducing real estate costs, how to think about sales outreach and demand generation are a few among many hot topics.
    • Share what you’re learning: As you’re learning about how best to navigate the crisis (SBA loans, should I wear a mask, etc.), or if you’re developing new skills in this time that could benefit others, let them know! This can take the form of webinars, Zoom sessions, blog posts, email newsletters – the list goes on.
    • Share (or curate) resources: if you don’t have direct expertise, but are connected to others that do, consider collecting the best of what you’ve read and helping others make sense of the noise.

“I often send friends information (e.g. decks, white paper, anything useful) and say ‘just thinking of you.’ That often leads to an exchange and/or phone call.”

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Carter Cast

Venture Partner, Pritzker Group Venture Capital

Engage

  • Ask for advice – for all the shifts being made in your life (and those of your friends and connections), there are probably others who are very experienced in that specific change. Consider asking your friend who runs a distributed team for best practices, or a friend that ran a company in 2008 how they’re approaching a downturn – doing so can give you insight about what to do, and maintains your bond.
  • Share your life – such a big shift in daily patterns also creates an opportunity to be authentic, and share a part of yourself that typically isn’t visible in professional interactions. For (potentially) the first time, they can see what your home and office decor is like, the personalities of your kids, and your hobbies. It also gives you an opportunity to be vulnerable – to share what you’re struggling with, learning, and how you’re adapting. In the midst of all the struggle, you likely also have happy moments to share – getting a chance to see your child walk for the first time (when you would have been at work), or getting a dog to keep you company.

“Right now, what I’m finding is that people are actually more interested in reconnecting than normal. True, many are juggling work and kids which is creating a ton of added pressure. At the same time, everyone currently is sharing the same experience.

So there’s an opportunity to connect as humans, which can actually turn what have previously been transactional or surface-level relationships into something deeper and stronger

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Sean Johnson

Partner, Founder Equity
  • Lighten the mood – it’s the understatement of the century to say that stress levels are high at the moment. Now more than ever, humor (and honestly distraction) can go a long way to helping people get through all of this. Some tactics:
    • Zoom virtual backgrounds – an easy way to inject levity and personality into remote meetings, and have fun with the suddenly video conference-heavy nature of day to day work.
    • Gifts – with the sheer amount of time being spent at home desks, inventive swag like the Shrug Capital calendar or a well-selected Cameo can help create top of mind awareness.
    • Digital media: if you know enough about their interests – sharing good TV shows, Youtube clips they’d find funny, articles and books you’ve read that you liked, or other forms of entertainment can serve as a welcome diversion.

I’ve engaged my network with a closeness that adds to our working relationship. As an example, I use Calendly to schedule meetings, and within the app I ask my network about their tools for self care (and favorite music!).

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Taj Eldridge

Sr. Director of Investment, Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI)
  • Congratulate people with good news – while the vast majority of the news cycle is dominated (and rightly so) by the events surrounding COVID-19, the world hasn’t completely stopped. Some companies and trends are accelerating during the crisis, companies are pivoting to address the challenges that are emerging, and events from before the lockdown began are now getting media attention. These all represent opportunities to connect, engage, and maintain relationships.
  • Thoughtfully engage with their content – connected to the above, others in your network are likely sharing content and resources to help those in their network navigate the crisis. In addition to amplifying and sharing with others in your network, this represents an opportunity to engage them directly on their perspective.
  • Have a reminder system – it’s worth ensuring that you reconnect with the people that matter to you in this time. Setting up some sort of reminder system can help you not lose sight of this priority in the midst of this rapidly changing environment.

“You’re only human, you can’t remember everyone, let a system do what you can’t.”

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Chris Fralic

Board Partner, First Round Capital

Quote from: How to Become Insanely Well-Connected

How to prioritize your efforts

We all want to engage with (and help) as many people as we can in this environment. But none of us have boundless time and energy in the best of times, and now is far from the best of times. Below are a few frameworks to help guide who you focus your efforts on:

Most business-critical

In a world exhausting you and stretching you thin, it’s important to be honest about the amount of outreach and engagement you’re capable of right now. It’s totally valid and OK to prioritize the relationships you deem most critical to your professional journey and your business, including:

  • Mentors and mentees
  • Close professional peers and colleagues
  • Key suppliers, partners and customers
  • Deal sources, co-investors, and capital sources

Those you’ve made commitments to

It’s likely that others depend on you to accomplish their goals or keep their business operating, in the best of times – and will need your support in these far from the best of times. The exact constituents of this will depend on your line of work, but a few examples:

  • For an investment fund: portfolio companies, limited partners, and teammates likely come first.
  • For a consulting firm and investment banks: existing clients, teammates, and former clients
  • For non-profits: these might be the populations you’ve been formed to serve, and your grantors.

The most impacted

Put simply – who in your network could use your help the most? Some suggestions are people:

  • Who have lost their jobs
  • Whose businesses have shut down
  • Who work in or adjacent to an industry that’s suffering (travel, hospitality, in person services, education)
  • Who have pre-existing health issues (physical and mental)

Where you can be most impactful

Who does your skillset uniquely enable you to help? This will differ by person and business, so I’ll highlight some examples I’ve seen:

Those who give you energy and motivation

Though we’re all heavily motivated to give and help, it’s important to take care of your own well-being and mental health throughout all the turbulence. It’s worth doubling and tripling down on time spent with the people who give you energy, stability, and help you keep it together.

Change from pre-COVID 19 state

Who in your network do you i) perceive the largest engagement falloff for that ii) would have the biggest negative impact to you (or your business) as a result of the coronavirus outbreak?

Other prioritization heuristics

In addition to these frameworks, there are some pre-existing methodologies around relationship building and maintenance that have application here.

Bonus: expand your network

If there’s a person you’ve been meaning to meet, then this could be the perfect time to reach out and engage them. It’s likely that many of the events on their calendar weeks ago have been canceled, and in this face of this crisis people are looking for ways to connect with others right now and be helpful. It’s simple: find their email, write a short note, and see what happens.

You can also use this time to revive dormant connections. Ask them what they’ve been up to, share updates, and importantly make sure to talk about things that are more personal than business projects.

Conclusion: Lead with humanity

Great relationships are the catalyst to the efforts that will save lives, get millions of people employed again, and keep our economy vibrant. Those relationships will also help each other through the dark moments where it feels like we may lose it all.

While we’re all trying to keep some semblance of normalcy, embedded in each interaction is a choice around whether and how to recognize the very human impact of COVID-19 on the world. We hope you choose to engage with authenticity, empathy and humanity. By banding together and investing in our critical relationships, we can collectively come out of this pandemic stronger than ever before.

Thanks to Claude Cimeus for his help in pulling this post together!

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