men and women talking

Face-to-face contact remains the preferred way for professionals to network, despite the increasing availability of online networking tools, according to new research commissioned by EY into the future of networking.

The research, comprising a white paper by Julia Hobsbawm, visiting Professor of Networking at London’s Cass Business School, and a survey by Populus of 750 business professionals at all stages of their career, found that those at the earliest stages of their professional development have the strongest attachment to in-person networking. Nearly 70% of those at an executive level are networking in person, whilst only 36% of executives network via social media platforms.

Across all respondents, 56% network in person, followed by email (44%), online/social networks (33%) and finally telephone (28%). Of those who do network in person, 71% describe it as “very valuable”.

Liz Bingham, EY’s Managing Partner for Talent in the UK & Ireland, said: “Networking is often put in a box and seen as a separate distinct activity, where business cards are exchanged and hands are shaken. Whereas in reality, it’s something we all do, every day, with our friends, colleagues, clients and acquaintances. At its most basic level, networking is about forming and maintaining relationships and this is often best done face-to-face.”

Julia Hobsbawm, author of the EY whitepaper launched today, Fully Connected, commented: “In the sea of digital overload, people crave human connection, either one-to-one, or one-to-many. The ability to connect with another human, to develop trust, understanding, faith, belief and a relationship, happens best face-to-face.”

Value of professional networking underestimated

A mere 53% of business workers value networking as professional skill and almost one in four respondents (24%) – ranging from executive to owner/directors – admitted they did not currently network.

Whether this is as a result of time-poverty or shyness; Julia Hobsbawm regards this as a missed opportunity: “Networking happens at every level, and should be done at every level. Being able to network and collaborate with peers is now being directly linked to productivity. The softer skills of connection are increasingly crucial to professional success and it can only be a matter of time before more of us recognise the value of investing in relationships and building social capital.”

Many professionals also seem to struggle to manage their professional networks, whether on or offline. 51% of respondents do not have a LinkedIn account; and of those that do only 50% of respondents have quarterly contact with more than 10 of their LinkedIn connections.

Lack of networking culture 

Almost half of professionals (47%) do not feel that they have the right connections to succeed in their career. Two out of five professionals would like to network more, but do not feel they have enough time.

Liz Bingham explains: “The so-called ‘soft’ skills, such as relationship building and time management, have to become core skills in today’s workplace. They are key attributes we look for in our new recruits. But for networks to succeed and be effective we all need to be prepared to ask for help and be prepared to return the favour. It’s a great privilege to be able to tap into relationships in that way, and not a sign of weakness which is how it can sometimes be perceived.”

This attitude to relationships is not helped by a lack of networking culture in corporate Britain. According to EY’s research, 73% of professionals’ workplaces do not have either a networking strategy or training in place.

Women unconvinced by women-only networks

Despite the fact that women-only networks have long been hailed as a method of driving greater equality in the workforce, only 24% of women (and 21% of professionals) felt there was a need for women-only networks in the modern workplace. However, at a time when the average FTSE board has only 20% female representation it may be too soon to do away with women-only networking.

Liz Bingham comments: “There is sometimes a view that women’s only networks are about ‘prosecco and cupcakes’, whereas in reality they are an invaluable platform to share knowledge, insights and experience in a safe environment.

“As a society, I’d like us to get to a point where women’s only networks are no longer needed and initiatives like the 30% Club are going to help us get there. However, we aren’t there yet and I believe there’s still a compelling need for networking opportunities for women that still needs to be addressed. The fact that EY’s Women’s Network has over 3,000 members across the UK is testament to this, as is the fact that the average FTSE board has only 20% female representation.”