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Building connections with intention: networking in the age of COVID-19 and remote work

Networking may help us become more effective in-house counsel, says Barbara de Dios

Barbara De Dios

As we sit at home typing away in the comforts of our sweatpants and cups of homemade coffee in hand, it may dawn on us that the intentionality behind our networking efforts have recently waned.

In light of recent prevailing priorities which have undoubtedly taken over our professional agendas these past few months, building connections or nurturing relationships with colleagues in the community - or even within our own organizations - may have been pushed to the backburner, considering networking or relationship building lower on the priority list (if it even stayed on the list at all). Conversations about the pandemic in-house (and its impact on operations) may have trumped a quick ‘what’s new with you?’ Networking or relationship-building beyond initial salutations, at least in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, seemed like a luxury we could not afford with our limited time and in the context of such fluid circumstances.

But as remote work continues for many of us, dismissing the concept of building connections (while staying hyper-focused on the pandemic and its effects) concurrently dismisses its benefits – these may include new professional relationships, renewed in-house connections within your organization (for those you haven’t seen through Zoom in days or weeks), or the important soft skills we hone when attempting to build professional friendships with other legal professionals.

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly taken over professional agendas, - and importantly so - perhaps we would be remiss to dismiss networking or relationship-building as a superfluous consideration or one of limited practical application, in the age of a pandemic and remote work. Perhaps we could consider a balance, or even the flipside – that networking within the legal industry or within the confines of our own organizations during these unprecedented times, may, instead, very well help us become more effective in-house counsel.

The constant connection: intentionality within the legal community

“I just wanted to say hello.” Scrolling through my LinkedIn private messaging inbox a couple of months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find several LinkedIn messages from colleagues in the industry who reached out with a quick hello and a brief message to “check in and see how remote work is treating you” – many of whom are mere acquaintances but held no hesitations about reaching out, despite prevailing circumstances (and, in fact, using our current circumstances to cultivate our professional connection).

In the weeks that followed, a continued and consistent pattern of quick messaging followed – “I just wanted to say hello” led to “check out this new resource” or “I found this new article and thought of you.” Undoubtedly, the constant connection of quick LinkedIn messages has built a solid foundation of familiarity despite physical distance, building incredibly beneficial relationships, and providing resources I may not have found on my own.

Although building constant connections with professional strangers through casual LinkedIn messages may seem too uncomfortable or awkward a situation for times such as these, its benefits and lessons remain the same. Applying the consistency of constant professional connection provides some very clear lessons, (i) don’t underestimate the value of a virtual relationship, (ii) don’t underestimate how easily you can maintain and build a virtual relationship, and (iii) maintaining contact, relationship, and connection – especially during these times of remote work – builds valuable rapport that could serve you well later on in your career (or perhaps sooner than you think).  Nurtured professional connections may later lead to in-person coffees or mentorship opportunities which could be more easily secured when the foundations of your rapport have already been built.

The constant connection: intentionality within your organizations

“Checking in to see how you’re doing – let’s grab a few minutes on Zoom.” A mere 10 minutes of virtual coffees with stakeholders in my organization yielded similar results. While addressing the operational impacts of the pandemic have been incredibly important agenda items (and rightly so), paying attention to your in-house relationships throughout these times continues the trajectory of cultivation for your stakeholder relationships - which may prove valuable in our roles as advisors to our organizations.

Remote work and limited in-person interaction don’t necessarily lead to the stagnation of professional relationship development in-house. Over the past several months, reaching out for a quick casual chat with my key stakeholders, from marketing, to finance, to operations, has limited our feelings of distance – feelings which may easily be heightened in an era of remote work and almost zero in-person interaction.

Nurturing our in-house relationships to continue breeding comfort and familiarity may lead to strengthening trust and reliance in our counsel – having in-house stakeholders feel comfortable with you, as a lawyer and as a colleague, is an incredible skill that I hope to continue developing, and importantly so as we hold advisory roles in our organizations where comfort in our guidance may be connected to comfort with us as a colleague.

Conclusions and online virtual coffees

Online virtual coffees have become a popular avenue to bridge physical connections during these unprecedented times, whether with in-house stakeholders or with other lawyers in our community.

At first, online virtual coffees left me doubtful and hesitant – how do we bridge the awkwardness of a virtual meet? What would we talk about? Moving beyond my comfort zone to accept or request virtual coffees chats has been one popular method for constant connection, with certain considerations, (i) virtual coffees don’t have to be too long, (ii) set a time limit to your calendar invitations, and (iii) be prepared with some semblance of structure – while clinical in theory, an agenda or structure covers your main points and ensures that dead space or silence don’t creep into your virtual conversations.

The landscape for our relationship-building efforts have shifted  -  at least for now. Regardless of which virtual avenues we choose to bridge that gap, our intentional efforts to maintain consistency in our connections create momentum when in-person contact is limited – remoteness is no longer necessarily a limitation.

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