If you’re like most of us, the coronavirus pandemic has shrunk your inner circle, while elevating its importance. You’re seeing very few family members and maybe a friend or two, and that’s about it. At work, you’re videoconferencing with your team frequently and logging in to other meetings, sometimes lapsing into a Zoom coma.
But what about those serendipitous encounters with acquaintances or even strangers – business or personal – at a coffee shop, at a house of worship, in the elevator? For many of us, it’s just not happening.
The fading of those lighter, more distant connections – sociologists call them weak ties – is a sad thing, yet it feels minor compared to the deep losses that humanity is suffering. But those weak ties may have more value than you’d guess. What can you do to maintain a wide web of potentially beneficial connections in these socially challenged times?
What are ‘weak ties’ and why do they matter?
The theory of weak ties is that people on the periphery of your professional network are actually very important to you, because they link your own small, close-knit core network to many other individuals and networks. Friends of friends, people we meet through chance encounters – they all connect us to new possibilities, business innovations, and career opportunities.
Weak ties are important because they offer us a route out of the comfort zone of our inner circles and a pathway into what’s new in the world. “In the office, we run into people while we’re getting coffee – and that can spark unexpected and fruitful conversations,” says Daniel Pink, author of “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” “At a conference, we end up standing in line with a stranger – and eventually exchange business cards and an idea or two. Our weak ties live in different worlds, so connecting with them is a bit like visiting another country.”
These thin connections also illuminate unknowns. “Weak ties are a gold mine of opportunities that you didn’t even know existed,” says Jocelyn Brumbaugh, principle at The Brumbaugh Group, a marketing agency for law firms. “These connections let us exponentially increase possibilities.”
This is especially important right now. “With coronavirus, we’ve become tired of our strong ties,” says Brumbaugh. “We’re all looking for something fresh.” So it’s great to “reach out and have an authentic conversation that could go in a million directions – but with no expectation that something will come out of it.”
On the flip side, a dearth of opportunities to create or maintain more remote connections will ultimately stifle innovation and reduce the efficacy of professional networks and organizations.
What does weak-ties networking look like in the time of coronavirus?
Even when things are normal, “people aren’t great at keeping in touch with weak ties,” says Brumbaugh. “These connections are a great opportunity – but one that people feel weird about exploring.”
So how do we go about maintaining these valuable looser connections when the pandemic is giving us such strong reasons to avoid seeing anyone but our core groups? Social media may help you discover weak ties you didn’t know you have, but it’s often not the best way of reaching out to those folks. Even email seems more impactful for person-to-person outreach.
“I’ve sent emails to people whose work I appreciate – say, the author of a book I’ve just finished – to thank them,” says Pink. “I’m not aggressively trying to establish a tie; it’s really an act of gratitude, which itself is valuable to our well-being. But a short thank you email can lead to a longer exchange – and perhaps something valuable for both of us.”
Given pandemic-era screen fatigue, a voice call can be a destressing way to connect – and a way to ease the pressure to look good in these days of dubiously styled hair. Brumbaugh finds refreshment in combining such a call with time outdoors. “Scheduling a phone walk has been wonderful for reconnecting with weak ties,” says Brumbaugh. In recent years, “we’ve all moved away from being on the phone. But I’ve found that to talk on the phone and walk at the same time is amazing.”
You can use your outreach to these more distant connections as a testing ground for networking experimentation – by rolling out a new elevator pitch for yourself or your new idea, for example. If you feel awkward about calling on acquaintances you don’t normally reach out to, tamp down your reticence by reminding yourself that these people – however remote or powerful they might be – are a low-stakes gambit for you. What’s the worst that can happen? You get no reply and simply continue exploring your boundless universe of other connections.
How can organizations promote weak-ties networking?
For companies, it’s more important than ever to encourage employees to keep building a broader set of connections that can engender novel solutions in a world that keeps changing in big and unexpected ways. Organizations should recognize the very human reflexes that may cause us to hunker down, rather than reach out. So company leaders need to show the way.
“The organization should lead by example,” says Brumbaugh. “To get it to the point where the idea of reaching out widely is rattling around in your team’s head.”
About the AuthorMore Content by John Rossheim