Many women I work with don't relish after work socials – myself included - but some of my most career defining moments have happened over a drink. Once, in the pub, I was given vital information about a new team and the leaders I was about to start working with. If I hadn’t turned up, I would have missed the chance to hit the ground running. Worse still, I could well have put my foot in it on day one.
Looking back at life before coronavirus, the importance of informal networking at the pub could not be overstated. Joining what looked like a few drinks after work was more often than not actually about accessing a critical ‘in-crowd’. Sharing vital intelligence, giving and receiving informal mentoring and sponsorship, highlighting your work and being seen as ‘one of us’ are just some of the benefits of those seemingly innocuous few pints after work.
One can imagine how young shining stars are taken under the wing of a more senior stakeholder and informally mentored down the pub. When a big exciting project comes in, who will this stakeholder give the work to? The shiny young protégé, or the very-hard-working-but-less-familiar woman who leaves at 5pm every day to pick up her kids but logs on again at 8pm (which goes completely unnoticed as their colleagues are all at the pub)?
I like a drink as much as the next person and the post work drinks culture would be fine if everyone could gain equal access to these benefits. But, the old-world reality was far from equal and I don’t see the absence of those after work drinks as such a big loss. Informal opportunities to get exposure, like going to the pub, staying late in the office, joining a client social event, were enjoyed by those who did not have competing demands in the home (mainly, let’s face it, men). Now we are seeing that, in working from home, these advantages have been stripped away and everyone has, at least in theory, the same opportunities. There is more of a level playing field now for women to be noticed and valued, although much has been said in lockdown about women bearing the brunt of household duties, meaning work is often done during unsociable hours and there is little time left over for non-essential work interactions.
One of the most frequent topics my coaching service clients - both men and women - have been raising recently is how to cultivate networks outside of endless official Zoom meetings. My advice has been as follows:
- Access (or indeed instigate) informal conversations before or after a team meeting - the ‘huddles’, during which the vital stuff is being chewed over. We may not like this, and I would urge leaders to avoid these side conversations where possible and keep the conversation in ‘the room’, but these huddles happen. Are you part of them?
- Make time to cultivate your network with virtual informal ‘coffees.’ You may be surprised at how many of these are going on without you.
- Don’t simply put your head down and deliver, make sure the people who need to know what you are delivering. This may feel uncomfortable, but we’ve lost not only the after-work drinks but also the water cooler chats when you discuss what you are working on.
More than anything, my advice is to use the situation in which we all find ourselves to connect personally. Zoom means we are seeing into people's homes and viewing them in non-professional clothing with unkempt hair. Use this to connect with warmth and humour, share something about yourself, open up and be genuinely curious about how people are coping in lockdown. This is what you would be doing if you were going for a drink - the armour slips a little and you become more human. Weirdly, Zoom in lockdown permits this.
The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way we work, and, for women, this could be the opportunity we’ve been waiting for.
:: Helen Cowan is founder of The Tall Wall