Online networking: how to build meaningful interactions remotely

As part of EHL Research Day, Dr Sowon Kim and Dr Janet Shaner presented their findings on the impact of online interaction on our networking practices. What does networking really imply, what is amplified and reduced online, and how can the relational aspect be improved for online networking? These are just some of the questions addressed in this fascinating research project.

The benefits of networking

Covid-19 has triggered a massive shift in work practices. At the peak of the pandemic, over half of the workforce in Switzerland was partially working remotely and about one third was fully in remote mode (OFS, 2020). SMEs, account for 99% of companies in Switzerland. Among those who adopted remote working practices, 46% of SMEs expect to maintain the same level in the next years and 33% expect to increase it (Credit Suisse, 2020). Remote work and online interaction have become normalized.

Given these changes in the world of work, we sought to understand how people interact and develop relations online because the overall benefits of networking are tremendous. Networking, which is about building, maintaining, and using relations inside and outside the company (Wolff & Moser, 2009), is positively related to work-family conflict, but excessive or lack of networking decreases work-life balance (Wolff & Kim, 2020). Networking fosters entrepreneurship and innovation. People who network have greater visibility, work resources, and perform better at work. They are also more effective in job search and in the long run have greater career success (e.g., Forret & Dougherty, 2004; Pittaway et al., 2005; Wanberg, Kanfer & Banas, 2000).

Interacting in a virtual setting

To answer these questions, we conducted six focus groups (sample size = 19). Respondents had 20.8 years of average work experience, about a third were women, 89% were in top management, and all worked in micro companies (less than 10 employees) or SMEs (11-250 employees). We transcribed the focus group interviews and analyzed them. A few key concepts emerged from this qualitative data analysis, and we tested the associations of the key concepts in the quantitative dataset collected via an online survey (sample size = 184). Respondents had 24.3 years of average work experience, again a third were women, 47% were in top management, and 76% worked in micro companies or SMEs.

We came up with three key findings. The first is that in an online interaction, some elements are amplified, and other elements are reduced. Online interaction increases task efficiency. We get things done with no travel time, little cost, and less dispensed energy. Who hasn’t scheduled back-to-back meetings like a military bootcamp training, jumping in and jumping out of sessions? Yet, this comes at the expense of relationship building due to lower levels of interaction, a greater propensity for distraction, and difficulties to read nonverbal body language. Communication becomes sequential and asynchronous as people wait and take turns to speak (raise hands, unmute, and mute) and impacts the intensity, frequency, and duration of interaction.

This linear way of interaction coupled with a waiting time to speak, also favors distraction (e.g., checking emails, navigating websites). We are physically present and cognitively absent which affects building relations. In an online setting, we miss capturing the entire palette of nonverbal body language that is key to recognize the attitudes and emotions of others that help develop relations.

On the other hand, online interaction amplifies self-development because there are greater learning opportunities with accessibility to worldwide webinars. We can participate and learn anything, anytime, and anywhere as there are no geographical boundaries. There is flexibility in terms of reach within a context that is fixed in advance. At the same time, the flexibility in terms of serendipitous encounters practically disappears because uninvited people cannot jump in into online meetings or gatherings.

Improving the relational aspect

Clearly the big loser in an online interaction is the relational aspect. Is there something we can do about improving this? Yes, and this is our second finding. It seems that in an online interaction there are certain cues that signal that we can trust the other person. We identified four cues from our study:

  1. “Tech cues” refer to the online setting such as a good connection and audio.
  2. “Prosocial behaviors cues” point out how people behave during the interaction such as listening actively and sharing information openly.
  3. “LinkedIn cues” refer to the use of LinkedIn to filter or assess a profile pre-during-post meeting.
  4. “Referral cues” indicate that a profile has been referred by a contact.

We wanted to see if these cues really mattered. In addition to our four cues, we added another cue based on research that showed the importance of looking at the camera and smiling and labeled it “face cues.”

Cues that signal trust & help build relations

Our third finding showed that different cues are associated with different dimensions of trust that impact building relations online. What we found is that prosocial behaviors cues are positively related to benevolence-based trust (“I trust you because I believe that you care about me”) and this in turn facilitates building internal relations online. We also found that LinkedIn and referral cues directly enabled building external relations online. We thought about what might explain the different paths.

When building internal relations, people are colleagues, and the company is the common denominator, that might act as the glue between them. When building external relations, people are complete strangers and might be looking for cues that signal that a person is “normal” or is not a “crook.” Because there is no common denominator, LinkedIn and referrals might play a critical role in deciding if people pursue to build the relations online. Interestingly, we did not find anything significant with tech and face cues. In other words, a good wifi, audio, looking at the camera, and smiling might be a good starting point but might not be enough or a deal breaker in making someone trust you.

Two key takeaways for improving online interactions in business

So, what does all this mean? The first key take away is addressed to the managers, and we advise them to strategize and channel networking efforts. If you are networking online with colleagues, practice prosocial behaviors that signal benevolence to help build relations. If you are networking online with professionals outside the company, ensure to have referrals and an updated and relevant LinkedIn page.

The second key take away is addressed to the SMEs, and we recommend companies to design a workplace that integrates the different elements of an online interaction and normalize it. Companies should maintain the task efficiency of the online interaction and encourage self-development. For example, a company could create a regularly updated platform and enlist worldwide expert webinars that employees could access easily. Most importantly however is to configure online opportunities with the specific purpose for relationship building. In an offline interaction, task and relationship building are integrated in one setting. In an online interaction, task takes over relationship building, and these are no longer integrated in the work activity. Companies must intentionally design spaces or activities, both online and offline, to ensure that their employees do build those crucial relations.

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