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The Art of Professional Relationships in the Virtual World

The Art of Professional Relationships in the Virtual World

The virtual world is a reality. Data management professionals must embrace this next normal, while re-evaluating how they approach establishing and maintaining professional relationships.

Virtual relationships are here to stay!  Embracing this next normal, while re imagining how to establish and maintain professional relationships in the digital environment, is a business reality. For many, connecting primarily online wasn’t common prior to 2020. The ability to make virtual impressions and build relationships through computer screens is an increasingly valuable skill. Rather than living and working in the four-dimensional world we’re accustomed to, individuals must effectively brand, present and humanize themselves in 2-D. 

Video conferencing platforms have quickly replaced or augmented in-person meetings and phone calls, as teams aim to maintain a sense of community and connection. Even as some employees remain in physical offices, organizations plan to continue offering flexible work options. It’s likely virtual meetings and events will also be common in the future, as companies strive to keep their employees and customers healthy. In addition, education and training will be conducted online (live or on-demand) as well as in-person.

Professionals are evolving how they build relationships and position their own personal brands to be most relevant in today’s environment. Individuals must be more strategic in seeking out networking opportunities and making meaningful connections. Additionally, the virtual stage has new rules and protocols. As data management professionals navigate this next normal, there are a few ways to maximize impact.

Polished Presentation

First impressions are still important and yes, optics matter even more today. Professionals should consider how their spaces will appear on others’ screens. More neutral backgrounds are preferred over ones that are too busy. If bookshelves or other pieces of furniture are visible, their contents should appear tidy and organized. Place light sources behind the camera and in front of the participant to avoid shadows. If needed, computers can be raised up, so individuals are not looking down at the screen. This will help maintain more natural eye contact with other participants.

Outside of environmental considerations, a professional personal appearance is also important. If one is wearing makeup, neutral colors look best; bright colors, especially lip colors, can appear too harsh on camera. Busy clothing patterns can also distract from what a speaker is saying. From a formality standpoint, individuals should dress similarly to how they would if the event were occurring in-person.

Especially prior to important meetings, sound and video quality must be tested to avoid any last-minute surprises. If a platform hasn’t been used in the past, logging on early provides time to download any required programs and test audio visual components. Individuals may even consider enlisting a trusted friend or family member to do a trial run and confirm everything works as expected.

Effective Participation

Backgrounds and appearances can help set the tone; however, it’s important to understand how to effectively participate and fully engage in video calls. There’s a balance between being heard and being an active listener. Those who are more reserved may find it difficult to speak up during meetings with several attendees. On the other hand, those who are naturally more outgoing may need to consciously take a step back to make space for others to speak.

In larger conversations, individuals can prepare ahead of time and set personal goals for the meeting to help ensure their points are not getting lost. Raising a hand, typing into the chat function and un-muting microphones can all be indicators someone would like to talk. At the same time, participants can be advocates for others, especially when they have the floor, by inviting less vocal individuals into the conversation.

Speaking clearly and directly, while allowing for pauses after important points, can help information resonate with an audience. Aim to remain authentic and gracious, engaging others when possible and furthering the conversation toward a common goal. Unlike in-person meetings, eye-contact can be best conveyed by looking straight into the camera, rather than at other participants.

It’s also important to make the most of the onscreen space one has available. The camera should be back far enough that hand gestures and body language can be seen on screen, not just the individual’s head and shoulders. Hand gestures can be effective in making points; however, consideration must be given to how those gestures will come across to other participants. Large gestures may go off screen and ones made close to the camera may come across as larger than intended. While it may seem unnatural at first, keeping hands close to one’s body is typically most effective.

Remember that even those who aren’t talking are typically still on screen. Pay attention to body language and posture throughout a call, not just when actively participating. By nodding when others are talking, making minor head tilts to demonstrate active listening, smiling and displaying a welcoming demeanor, individuals can show they are interested in what the speaker has to say.

Personal Brand Consistency

One of the challenges of a hybrid work environment is creating a personal brand that is consistent both online and in person. Consider how relationships initiated online will eventually translate to a face-to-face situation. Who someone is on screen should be a reflection of who they are in person, and vice versa. However, this may not be as easy as it sounds. Bridging one’s digital brand and non-digital brand requires intentionality to be most successful.

In the virtual world, initial introductions may not happen as organically as they do in real life. Zoom break out rooms, online networking events, private LinkedIn groups and more are being used to help recreate the more intimate feel of in-person interactions. In these settings, it’s important to have an established personal brand that is customized to the virtual world. When adjusting these stories, also referred to as elevator pitches, the content is typically shorter than what would be shared in person. Strive for something memorable, but also be aware sarcasm, tone and facial expressions may not always come across as clearly.

After an initial meeting, professionals shouldn’t be shy about asking to keep in touch or connecting on LinkedIn. Similar to standard networking event follow-up, these bonds can be strengthened by sending relevant articles, complimenting other’s contributions to the discussion, or asking follow-up questions. Ask if individuals would be open to virtual lunches or an online beverage break to continue conversations more in depth. Eventually, it may be possible to meet new online connections face-to-face, with advantages drawn from the online experience.

Conclusion

The virtual environment is new territory for many. Taking time to reframe introductions, being strategic about meeting participation and following up, will pay off. Through trial and error, practice and intentionality, individuals will be able to convey their best professional selves both on screen and off.

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Margaret Resce Milkint

Margaret Resce Milkint is a talent strategist and diversity catalyst, focused on delivering top c-suite executives to the insurance industry. As a leader of the firm’s executive search practice, she handles executive talent searches on a global basis in the areas of life, property and casualty, healthcare, reinsurance, and consulting. Margaret is dedicated to relationship-building, collaboration, ambassadorship, inclusion and innovation in search/recruiting, insurance and data management. She has served as a trustee for The Actuarial Foundation, a board member for the Illinois Technology Foundation, and a member of the Society of Actuaries’ Employers Council and the Chicago Finance Exchange. Additionally, she co-founded the Women’s Insurance Networking Group, a platform for networking and career development among female and enlightened male insurance professionals, and serves in leadership roles for several inclusion and diversity-focused organizations including Million Women Mentors and STEMconnector.

Margaret received her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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