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The Lonely, Pixelated Hell of Networking During the Pandemic

Is the goal to ‘remain connected’ to co-workers (and potential co-workers), or just more rise-and-grind bullshit that curtails our free time even further?

Andrew, a 30-year-old software developer in New York, has a new networking option available to him at work: a meeting randomizer to simulate hallway encounters. “You put your name on a big list, and once a week, you’ll get paired up with two other people and have an online meeting created for you,” he tells me. “The company has around 2,000 people with 15 offices, so it’s mostly people who don’t know each other, with lots of introducing yourself and explaining what you do every time.”

He can also partake in a “digital happy hour,” a kind of online simulacrum of after-work drinks. In practice, though, it’s often a stilted, awkward affair. “It’s mostly the CEO picking individual people to shoot the breeze with while the 50 other people on the call are muted,” he explains. “How else are you going to do that in one call?” 

Calvin, 26, who works for a TV studio in Philadelphia, says his workplace has created an entire virtual conference for networking. “There are virtual booths, virtual business cards and virtual stages,” he explains. “There are social hours where people get put into virtual break-out rooms to network with a few other people based on interests and things they’ve interacted with at the conference.”

He finds the experience mortifying. “It’s got bad video game graphics and the pre-recorded pop-up talking heads that tell you how it all works are very cheesy,” he says. “When you see how unnatural the whole concept is, it’s hard not to remember why the conference is happening virtually. It’s all very hellish — it seems like the bleakest version of ‘the new normal.’” 

Because the pandemic has shifted operations online for so many workplaces, these virtual networking arrangements are becoming more common. Gone are the IRL conferences and Friday night drinks, and in their place are virtual conferences, Zoom happy hours and hallway meeting simulators. And according to organizations like Forbes, LinkedIn and the Wall Street Journal, this is a good thing: They’re maintaining an optimistic, business-first tone, and encouraging workers to see the benefits of online networking. 

But often workers find these options excruciating, and resent being required to network during a pandemic at all. “Especially early on in quarantine, it felt really off to be pedaling business-facing products and networking as if nothing was going on,” Calvin says. “The idea of video-calling a stranger to network is also just very scary to me personally.”

Of course, the relentless pressure to be productive and the bleeding of work into free time were depressing features of pre-pandemic life, and networking activities like work drinks could already feel like an imposition. But the pandemic is a uniquely stressful experience; so anxiety-inducing that we’ve been rendered unable to read, let alone solve complex work problems. You might expect, then, that bosses and managers would afford employees some leniency during this time, but some workers say that the opposite is occurring, with management using language about “remaining connected” as an excuse to ramp up the pressure on employees to put work first. 

And with the looming threat of mass unemployment due to the pandemic, this kind of pressure hits workers extra hard. “During a meeting with my academic advisor, I was encouraged to start using LinkedIn more aggressively,” explains Nara, a 20-year-old student in Canada who says she’s being encouraged to “market [herself] to everyone under the sun” in preparation for entering the job market. “There shouldn’t be consideration over another candidate based on how many connections they have on LinkedIn or who they know,” she adds, “but it happens anyway.” 

Often, these online networking activities aren’t voluntary, either. Sometimes, in fact, they’re explicit requirements of the job. For example, Ashleigh, a 27-year-old teacher in Colorado, is required to regularly post to the Facebook Workplace page her school set up to “make sure teachers, administrators, network support personnel, HR and support staff all stay connected.” Sam, 22, works for a bank in Washington, D.C. where “networking and relationship building are part of what’s evaluated in our year-end bonus structures, with as much weight as any other category,” so her job is “definitely requiring Zoom networking.” In other cases, networking activities are presented as voluntary, but there is implicit pressure to partake. “The CEO is in the random meetings, and the initial idea was suggested by a prominent manager,” Andrew says, “so there is some social pressure.” 

Online networking may suit some workers well, at least given the alternatives on offer: For someone who doesn’t drink, wants to avoid sexual harassment or who has childcare responsibilities, say, it might be a relief not to have to attend post-work drinks. However, online networking comes with its own set of difficulties, especially during a pandemic. “It feels odd to be made to socialize and interact at a time when, as a reaction to stress, I’ve become more insular,” Ashleigh says. “It also feels weird because our admins are there, and it feels like they’re monitoring and micromanaging us, especially when they require us to post pictures of our at-home workspaces.” 

Ashleigh finds this latter requirement “invasive” and says that it can embarrass lower-income staff. “We’re at very different pay grades,” she says. “Some people have been able to turn their offices or guest rooms into essentially mini classrooms, whereas other people live in tiny one-bedroom or studio apartments where they don’t have the space or money to do that.”

Sam says that all the Zoom meetings impact her health, too. She suffered a bad concussion a few years ago, and she finds that these meetings make her symptoms flare up, including headaches and eye fatigue that persists despite her using computer glasses. “I definitely had to start booking buffers on my calendar when I had a full day of back-to-backs and my vision started to blur,” she says. “But it’s hard to really have control over your calendar as the newest hire and lowest-level associate.” 

The reality that online networking can be cringeworthy, anxiety-inducing and tiring, can make all the business-speak about “interaction” and “connection” feel especially grating. Often, these activities are framed as though they’re of benefit to workers rather than bosses: Zoom meetings are a form of “social decompression” and the “platform of choice for individuals desperate for human contact.” Sometimes the veneer slips, though, and these directives to network in the midst of mass death and unemployment end up sounding downright sociopathic. “Open the conversation using [contacts’] names and their family member names if you know them,” one Forbes article instructs workers. “You need to be authentic and sincere. Ask if they have parents alive and if they are okay. You need to sound like you genuinely care.”

No wonder, then, that the whole exercise can strike workers as hollow and exhausting. “There’s an expectation that we should always be working on upgrading ourselves, and if we’re not min-maxing our lives, we’re doing it wrong,” Nara says. “We’re always supposed to be profitable by our own doing.”

“It’s difficult to try and maintain a bunch of superficial relationships,” she continues. “What happens to the people unable to network, or the people who are just bad at it? Do they continue to be doomed to their situation because they don’t have enough contacts or followers? It’s so unpleasant to think about.”

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