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              Work & Money

              The New Way To Network

              If you're wondering if you have time to eat lunch, let alone do lunch, columnist Lauren Smith Brody reframes how we think about networking as parents. She answers your questions on heading back to paid work or connecting with colleagues while managing to make it home for bedtime.

              Written By
              Lauren Smith Brody
              Illustration
              Maria-Ines Gul

              Several years ago, I had an informational meeting with a big, powerful person at a big, powerful company, and his number-one bit of advice to me was: “Lauren, you need to go have 100 lunches.” At the time, I had a baby and a toddler and was working in a job where I barely had time to pee, let alone sit across an expensive nicoise salad with someone for an hour, so I just kind of laughed and said thanks and left feeling crappy about my “lack of network.”

              Here’s what I wish I’d known then: It doesn’t have to be lunch. It can be coffee, sipped together on the train while commuting. It can be a shared look as you and another parent both peek at your phones simultaneously at the mid-work-day school assembly, and instantly feel recognized and seen. It can be introducing yourself to someone at a kid’s birthday party. Or the dry-cleaner. Networking is no longer some secret transactional means-to-an-end. Sometimes it’s deliberately crammed into your calendar (and please do make the room for it that you can), but other times it’s simply connecting in a shared moment that you – here’s the key – see as such and then act on. That shared glance with the other mom at assembly? Text her and ask to walk out together when it’s over as you hustle back to your desks.

              That’s the new definition and approach I’m taking in answering your questions about the new networking this month, below. Even working for myself now, I still don’t have time for 100 lunches. But 100 meaningful connections, absolutely. You do too.

              I'm ready to go back to paid work and don't know where to start! Some of my friends and neighbors work in my field, but I'm not sure if it's ok to ask them about job hunting. How do I bring it up in a way that doesn't feel gross?

              Okay, first, let’s discuss gross. Gross would be you asking to wipe your kid’s nose on your friend’s skirt. Asking a friend for advice and introductions in this exciting transition is not gross. It’s necessary. It’s how we are built to connect and operate. It’s what fuels our economy – for better and for worse. And, it’s what men have been doing forever with far fewer feelings of conflict.

              So, a little pep-talk-slash-reframe: You are amazing for making this leap back into paid work!!! The world is built on connections, and while that is unfair because those with privilege and access have an enormous head start, one way that everyone can push back on that is by redefining who “counts” as a connection. The mom swinging her kid next to you at the playground counts. The dad in sweats at the bus stop counts. The retired grandma who sends you actual clippings from an actual newspaper in the actual mail? She counts too. If the pandemic has helped us all see that our “work” is both paid and unpaid as we live meaningful lives and raise children to contribute one day…then guess what? We are all now colleagues.

              Absolutely start with those friends and neighbors! I also encourage you to get back in touch with your old colleagues (really, even ones from a decade ago) and connect with them in as personal a way as you can. All the lines are blurred now and it’s no longer “work” versus “life.” The family stuff IS work, and the paid work is (hopefully) a fulfilling part of life. Embrace the blur!

              In case you need it, here’s your script: “I’m excited and nervous because I’m feeling ready to go back to paid work after time away from our field. I have two asks for you: One, Do you have any advice for me about how things have evolved in our kind of work over the past X years? With outside perspective I’ve noticed THING A and THING B – is that impression what you’ve seen from the inside, too? And, two – no pressure to respond right this minute as we’re eating birthday cake at Sally’s party, but – I’m starting the process of meet and greets and actual interviews and would love to meet anyone in your work world who would be open to it.”

              Sorry, but a Zoom coffee is less exciting than grabbing a drink. So how do I check in with colleagues virtually in a way that feels additive and casual?

              I love this question. A year or two ago, I would have suggested that you switch out the stuff in your background – a vacation picture, a piece of your family’s history, or some new kid art are all such perfect springboards into meaningful small talk. But, I have a feeling for many of you, that strategy is old hat by now.

              (Quick sidenote that I just googled “old hat” to see where the expression came from and, while it’s predictably from the early 1900s and referencing re-wearing the same beaten-up hat, apparently back in the 1700s it was also a euphemism for women’s genitals?! What!! Obviously, not a fun fact to be shared on your Zoom, but I share this tangent with you now to show you the power of curiosity and vulnerability. We are ALWAYS learning, and admitting that in your conversations makes them more genuine and interesting, too. Anyway, I will not be using that misogynistic expression anymore!)

              Back to you, two practical ideas:

              1. Suggest a walk-and-talk. Take your meeting outside with earbuds and give the other person permission to do the same. It’s a treat to feel like you’re out in the world “together,” moving your body is always a great idea, and being audio-only forces you to explain a bit about where you are and what you’re encountering along your walk, a little glimpse into your world that you wouldn’t get at a desk.

              2. Bring a guest and make an intro! Additive for all.

              I've moved to the 'burbs, and now that my team is starting to head back into the office, colleagues are going for drinks (dinner and coffee) more and more. I have to admit I have a little FOMO. I'd love to connect with them more but can't stay after work and be the parent I want to be. So how do I stay connected with colleagues without staying out till last call?

              So, good news: All of the blurring of boundaries I mentioned earlier applies here too. The old business development standards of a golf game or after-work drinks are still alive and well, but so are things like “family circus day” – a real Saturday afternoon event that a law firm I work with hosted specifically to be inclusive of employees and clients who can’t easily make it out for Tuesday night vodka tonic.

              If there’s some fun equivalent in your field, I encourage you to be the one to suggest it. The most effective strategy would be to team up with both other remote employees and some in-person ones as you make your proposal, so as not to further divide the staff. Even the in-person city-dwelling folks want to be home for the bath and bed routine at a reasonable hour too, after all.

              And thinking more emotionally, I’m curious to know more about your fear of missing out. I think if you can define what exactly you’re worried about missing out on, you can tend to those, need by need.

              For instance:

              If you’re worried about missing out on just nice friendly gossipy time together with your colleagues, try the walk-and-talk plan in the previous question.

              If you’re worried and feeling guilty for somehow being less of a team player, I encourage you to read this interview with Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom, from the fantastic newsletter put out by Charter. He very clearly spells out the business case for hybrid work, and internalizing those benefits can quiet the doubting voice in your brain and help you project confidence in the decision you’ve made to work from home.

              If you’re worried about missing out on career opportunities, read up a bit on “proximity bias,” and make a plan for 1:1’s with your supervisor if you don’t have that in place already. Also, know that “benevolent discrimination” is a less-measured aspect of the Motherhood Penalty that moms so often experience, and the best way to deal with it is by being vocal and proactive. Repeat after me: “Please don’t assume that I don’t want to be asked to [join in the meeting or go on that trip]. I appreciate your consideration and empathy around my family needs and remote work, but I’d always like to hear the opportunity and decide for myself if I can make it work.”

              And then…do! You may not be able to commute in for a work-social event weekly or even monthly. But could you swing it quarterly? Choose the times that are going to feel most worth the effort, and I promise everyone will treat you like a special guest star.

              LAUREN SMITH BRODY

              Lauren Smith Brody portrait

              Lauren Smith Brody is the author of The Fifth Trimester and the founder of The Fifth Trimester consulting, which helps businesses support and retain parents.You can follow her on instagram @thefifthtrimester.