When it comes to business development and networking in the age of COVID-19, no one knows where to start. Business centers once bustling with lunch time rushes, coffee meetings and West Wing inspired “walk-and-talks” are being hit the hardest by empty offices and hibernating storefronts. In Kendall Square, undoubtedly one of the places where serendipity happens regularly, many organizations large and small are asking themselves: Kendall Square evolved into a powerhouse of invention and progress because of the power of proximity. Water cooler conversations at coworking spaces, introductions at in-person networking events, and surprise interactions on sidewalks or in local restaurants have historically been facilitators of innovation and collaboration. As we begin another season of remote and shift work, many organizations, large and small, are asking themselves:

How do we recreate the power of Kendall Square’s proximity to accelerate innovation through collaboration and partnerships? 

Earlier this month, we hosted a Future of (how we) Work Task Force Meeting where we heard from business development leaders at Johnson & Johnson Innovation, MassVentures, McDougall Advisors, and LabCentral about how they are overcoming challenges and generating opportunities to inspire innovation and collaboration. Here’s what we’re learning:

What are the biggest problems associated with a lack of proximity?

  • Where once networking occurred organically, we now must be intentional around “scheduling” time for networking, in an atmosphere where we are all already overwhelmed and uncomfortable. 
  • Zoom fatigue is demotivating people from participating in virtual networking, or participating in virtual events at all, knowing they can access recordings later on. 
  • Companies are now recruiting for remote positions, and time zone differences present an obstacle to virtual or socially distanced networking events.

Who’s the most vulnerable right now?

  • Startups, who rely heavily on networking opportunities to grow their talent, investment, and collaborative pipelines, are being most impacted by the loss of in person opportunities to interact. 
  • In the case of coworking, which is grounded in the concept of shared space and amenities which facilitate exciting collisions, there is new anxiety around the act of sharing. Meanwhile, without a sense of the community, you are sharing with, people have shown to be less careful and considerate.
  • New, remote hires may not have a sense of the place or perspective for Kendall Square, the epicenter of global innovation. While those who are aware of Kendall’s magic, may be disenchanted by lack of physical proximity and we may lose potential incoming talent. 

What are some bright spots during this paradigm shift?

  • While hiring remotely presents challenges, it also opens up Kendall to an entirely new talent pool and the diverse perspectives they have to offer. 
  • Where once we all presented our most professional selves, everyone has been forced into a position of vulnerability that has yielded a new sense of empathy and community, making company events feel even better than ever. 
  • Virtual experiences may be more accessible for professionals in caregiving roles, who can now join from home where otherwise they could not in person.

How can we use this moment to realize new opportunities for connecting?

  • The concept of a typical networking event – cocktails and conversation – is easily translated into a virtual context. Meanwhile, a whole host of concepts which would have been otherwise difficult in person can now be offered digitally, such as cooking classes. Companies are also more inclined to offer in person experiences which can be socially distanced, such as golfing and ski trips. 
  • People are lonely in quarantine, so those with the energy to do so are eager to connect in a socially distanced or virtual setting for casual company fun or external networking experiences. 
  • Where once large group networking events were standard, now 1:1 opportunities to connect are being facilitated in a variety of ways within companies.
  • Socially distanced walking meetings provide a change of pace (pun intended). 
  • Kendall has the capacity to work together and build out the infrastructure for pop-up beer gardens, community bonfires, and other outdoor experiences to bring employees and companies together and build our community while maintaining social distancing. 

As we prioritize growth and recovery in the year ahead, our networks must expand to help us achieve our goals and benchmarks for progress. With another season of separation and solitude looming, we must use this moment to engineer new outlets for Kendall’s serendipity—like our Future of (how we) Work Task Force, which enables new connections and dialogues on issues that matter. Collaboration is in Kendall’s DNA, and our innovation ecosystem has never been more poised to experiment with these new opportunities to hone our most valuable resource for recovery, our network.  

What new ways of connecting are working for you and your colleagues? Tweet or post your ideas using #KendallConnects and we’ll share the best ideas in an upcoming newsletter.