Mixed Reality, Inclusivity, and Human Contact: What is the Future of Networking?
Among the countless revolutions brought about by the pandemic, perhaps none have been as profound as the changes in our communication. Talking to one another through a screen and microphone has now become second nature for billions, and it’s easy to wonder if there can be any going back.
The changes affecting our industry have been particularly pronounced. For example, the creative studio Nice Shoes - which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year - went from hosting 300-person rooftop BBQs and intimate Whiskey nights to Zoom game nights and happy hours. Through it all, the company’s culture has remained unchanged and relationships were strengthened in much the same way; it’s all simply happening on different channels.
Many of the dramatic changes we’ve seen, however, have their roots buried long before lockdowns first came into force. The world of networking was already experimenting with online events, and a culture born out of social media was evolving the way we connected.
Now that the pandemic has turbo-charged these existing trends, where does that leave us? Given that so many of us have become fully accustomed to a different way of networking, it’s easy to imagine a new era driven by technology and changing expectations. Or, will this year of always-online communication spark a renaissance for old-fashioned human-to-human contact?
To reflect on the ways in which networking is changing, we spoke to a collection of colleagues from across Nice Shoes. Creative Director Ninaad Kulkarni, Head of Sales Chloe Sedelmaier, Executive Producer, Development Teah Strandjord, Executive Producer, Development TJ Sponzo, and Head of Sales for Canada Jeremy Shell all offered their perspectives on the changing culture of connection.
Given that so much change has been driven by technology, it’s fair to assume that tech will continue to be the primary force driving innovation in communication. “I think it’s totally reasonable to look at VR and AR as a key factor in this space”, says Ninaad Kulkarni. “Just look at the timeline of how things have evolved so far. First it was all in text, through MSN or browser applications. Then that shifted onto messaging apps. After that, there was a switch over to video rather than text through the likes of Snapchat, TikTok and more formally Zoom. Soon we will hit a saturation point in terms of what we can do with that rectangle-shaped screen. It seems to me that VR and AR are a natural next step in that timeline”.
According to Ninaad, adoption is currently the most significant obstacle standing in the way of another communication revolution driven by VR and AR. But there are already signs that the tipping point may be closer than we think. “From my perspective in sales, you get a sense that there is something building around VR”, notes Chloe Sedelmaier. “They’re always the most liked and shared industry articles I see, and it’s great for us that we have an expert like Ninaad pushing this forward. There’s clearly a buzz, and I would expect that the tech will become a big part of the way we communicate and network in the near future”.
Fortunately, pioneering new technology is something of a second nature for Nice Shoes. “This whole discussion kind of brings me back to when we opened our first remote locations”, recalls TJ Sponzo. “If we’re being honest, there was a week or so at the start which was quite awkward in terms of figuring out the technology and the social aspects of communicating through a screen - but it quickly became normalised and easy, just like it is for everyone working remotely now. I can see that exact trajectory being replicated with VR. It may feel a little disjointed at first, but when we’re all used to attending events and meeting each other in a fully virtual space it will feel completely natural”.
Leaving The Ladder Up
For many young people looking to get their break in the industry, old-school networking at physical events was invaluable. In addition to providing an opportunity to make a connection with decision-makers, they also allowed aspiring talent the chance to soak up the creative scene’s culture and atmosphere. When reflecting on the potential changes set to arrive in the future, can we ensure that the next era of networking is kept inclusive for those looking to get their foot in the door?
However, the incentive to keep networking accessible for young people goes two ways. “Whatever offering companies provide for networking, it has to be inclusive to young people or it will fail”, says Chloe. “We know that young people are both the decision-makers of the future, and the most likely to behave in a way which predicts the future. From my position as Head of Sales, one of the first questions I would ask is how you are going to make networking accessible for those who want to use it. If you don’t do that, you won’t succeed”.
“Social media is already playing a huge role in that space, and I’d expect that to continue”, adds Teah Strandjord. “It allows people to group together and share information in a way which is informal, personal, and natural. On top of that, it helps generate a digital footprint which is really important for networking. It’s much easier to find the person you need to speak to given the information that is out there and accessible through various social media platforms”.
As far as Jeremy Shell is concerned, it isn’t young people who should be worried. “Rather than asking how we can leave the ladder up for young people, we should be asking if young people will make the future inclusive for their elders”, he says. “A more digitally-focused networking culture can increase the incentive to focus on positivity in each interaction. A subtle impression you made on someone in a quick interaction in the past might have been forgettable. Now, it can be the start of a lifelong friendship or a really meaningful long-term client engagement. In so many respects, you never know which encounters are going to be the most important to your life”.
A Turn of Events
When we talk about networking events, we might have a set idea of what to expect that comes to mind. However, could advances both in technology, and our own expectations, combine to permanently change the nature of networking events?
“Instinctively, I feel that there is going to be a backlash against this past year and people are going to be meeting each other in person again”, says Chloe. “But you know what - I also think that if the pandemic never happened, we’d still be talking about the changing culture of networking and communication. Because, really, this is being driven by technology and the shift in the way we live our lives. The pandemic has been an accelerator, but tech is the engine”.
Ninaad strikes a note of agreement. “Paradoxically, I think the virtual space has the potential to give us a lot of what we’ve been missing in the physical world in the near future”, he says. “Going back to VR briefly, one example that comes to mind is a call I had with a colleague recently where we both started playing virtual table tennis. It was fascinating because you think differently when your whole body is in movement - I guess that’s why people like walking and talking. So we’re really not far from a situation where that level of interaction that we’ve been missing can be replicated in the digital world. I think the implications for events and networking are profound”.
To sum up, Jeremy foresees a balance between the digital and the physical when it comes to networking events. “I think we’re going to see duality. Networking is about making the effort to reach out and connect with people. That will never fundamentally change”, he says. “I can see that exact same action occurring with a message on social media as I can when you shake a person’s hand. It’s the same energy and process. I do think that many might struggle to either attend or host physical events given what we now know can be done remotely. My hope is that technology allows for a democratisation of networking which benefits us all”.
When discussing the post-pandemic future of the professional world, there appears to be a recurring theme. Whether it be the freedom to work remotely or in the office, or the networking options afforded to us by technology, flexibility appears to be the watchword of the future.