how do I network now that I can’t take people for coffee?

A reader writes:

When approaching someone for an informational interview, it’s the done thing where I live to offer to take them out for a coffee (or bring them a hot drink if you’re coming to them). Whether or not they take you up on the offer isn’t really the point. It’s just a small gesture of good will and appreciation for their time. What on earth do we do when we’re under lockdown because of COVID? (Everything non-essential is closed and we’re not allowed to leave our homes except for necessities. This is going to continue for a good few months at least.)

As I said, coffee is just a gesture really, but it feels so weird — so rude — to leave it out and still ask for someone’s time. This is compounded by the fact that everyone is pretty fed up with online meetings and endless work phone calls, and asking them for a slice of time they could be doing literally anything else feels like a huge imposition. On the other hand, it feels quite presumptuous to comment on how frazzled everyone is because maybe they are doing okay and that would be rude? Or worse, saying basically, “Hey I know everything sucks right now and we’re all going through hell but could you just ignore that and talk to me anyway?”

I suppose the problem is that “coffee” for the person giving me their time under normal circumstances means maybe a break, a walk to a cafe, a change of scene, a hot drink and a chat with a hopefully pleasant stranger — overall a mostly positive thing. I’m not sure what can match or even approximate that when we’re all tied to our desks. Should I even be trying to find something else to offer? If not, how do I ask without sounding like a jerk?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. mreasy*

    As the occasional target of these requests, I much prefer a phone call or virtual meeting, rather than meeting in a coffee shop (and space can be a premium at my office). Meeting someone for coffee involves the elevator, walking a few blocks, then making sure I leave in time for elevator delay and the walk back before my next call. I wouldn’t worry?

    1. Lilian*

      Same! I’ve actually initiated a couple of these virtual coffees because they really aren’t a big deal for me right now being able to do from home, and are a change in pace for the day when I need it.

  2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    “Or bring them a hot drink.” , made me flinch as someone who hates hot beverages. #icedorgtfo

    NOT THE POINT, BECKY.

    If you want to, you can also say “can you carve some time out for a stranger? We can hopefully get coffee when this is all over and done with.” This way they know you thought of the “traditional” option at least.

    If you exchange email addresses, you can also send them a small gift certificate if you really want to feel like you’re giving them “something” for meeting with you! I’ve been facebook messaging people gift cards lately because…well I can. Lots and lots and lots of digital gift cards are available now.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Lots of them are online now! Our local one is, I can email them and they’ll send me a cert to send to someone.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        COVID has made it so many are actually forced to sell online. I buy coffee beans from a local sustainably harvested and fair trade boutique coffee shop. You can also go in to buy a cup as well but they roast it for you if you want.

        I was angry at my parents for deciding being out of coffee was a reason to go to the store and I was like “no, I send you coffee beans, you sit.” [Spoiler, they prefer frigging Maxwell House and therefore they just tossed my extravagant luxury beans into the cupboard. I found it when I could finally visit them *hard tantrum ending sigh*

        Lots of restaurants also sold gift cards to float while they were closed. Now they do takeout and can honor those gift certs.

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          How did they manage to raise a true coffee lover I wonder! Yup, I found that most of my very thoughtful presents to my parents ended up in a cupboard for car boot sale day.

  3. Admins, can't find good ones*

    I spent years setting these meetings up on behalf of sr. leadership. What a relief when it was just a phone call! Arranging coffees was such a pain. Where do you meet? What’s the transit time? And then after all that, the coffee meeting is first on the chopping block when things get busy, so usually I’d have to help reschedule at least once.

    Networking is a normal thing. Networking by phone is perfectly fine.

  4. KHB*

    I second the advice to lay on the compliments when you can. Hearing that my work is good/meaningful to somebody means a whole lot more to me than any cup of coffee ever could. And we all could stand to hear some more kind words, especially these days.

  5. Third or Nothing!*

    I like the idea of asking to take a short socially distant walk together, if it’s more of a networking type thing. That’s how I’ve been keeping in touch with my personal network, and it’s well suited for good conversation in a safe way – you’ve got something else to focus on besides what to do with your hands (just me?) and you can keep your distance. Course that doesn’t work if you’re in a densely populated area or somewhere with a ton of vehicle traffic.

  6. Lemon Zinger*

    A phone call is most appropriate. So many of us are burned out from videoconferencing for work, a phone call is actually something I would look forward to!

    1. So long and thanks for all the fish*

      I absolutely cannot stand phone calls, and probably just wouldn’t respond to someone asking for my time via phone. I find them so awkward and much, much worse than videoconferencing, even if I’ve recently been doing way too much of the latter. I guess it definitely wouldn’t hurt to offer both- “Could we set up a phone call, or time to video chat?”

  7. Rnow*

    This person must not be in the US because our lock downs aren’t that strict. You could easily buy beverage and have a marked outdoor park meetup with carryout beverages. So jealous of this place that takes covid seriously.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think it’s possibly an older letter, there are plenty of places in the US with this kind of lockdown in place but not for awhile now! Most countries are off this kind of strict lockdown as well.

      I had people shocked I could get drive-thru fast food during the height of the US lockdowns. California, Massachusetts and PA were strict AF from what my friends were telling me.

    2. Miss Muffet*

      I think most places are probably in a position where you could see one person for a distant (across the table perhaps) coffee, wearing masks, especially outside. I don’t see this as a super hard and fast thing. It might be worth asking if the person would like to meet up or just do a phone call! Many people might like to get out of their house!

      1. I'm just here for the cats*

        I wouldn’t recomend coffee or meet in person even if it is distant. If it is a stranger you don’t know what their situation is, they may have or live with someone with chronic illness that is more susceptible to the virus. There are still plenty of people who are being careful and not going out except for essential. And especially from a stranger, where you don’t know if they have taken procations (i.e. not going to high risk areas, don’t live with a healthcare person who could be a carrier of the virus, etc). And depending on the person’s viewpoint they may judge someone who asks to meet in person.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I agree with this. It’s a stranger, not an established connection yet. You need to be as cautious as possible about being sensitive to this all.

          I have folks in my life who stopped going to any kind of place that wasn’t the grocery store or doctor. People were very much side-eyeing me for being comfortable with getting a drink at a drive thru or picking up food to go, even though that was OK in our stay-at home order that was previously in effect. Which is okay for them to do, I know my circumstances [I live alone, my partner and I have quarantined separately because we’re both exposed to enough people at work, we wanted to cut our risks of exposing one another.]

          1. Amethystmoon*

            I work with someone at much higher risk than me and totally have stopped going out unless it’s something I need. Made an exception to visit family (in state) over the summer holiday weekends, but only after asking them what they were doing now. Don’t intend to visit them again until the winter holidays start up, assuming Covid is on the decline then.

    3. Georgina Fredrika*

      You might not want to assume the other person is okay with it, though, especially if you’re asking them a favor! I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who won’t do more than takeout, even though their states are totally open.

    4. Annony*

      Suggesting that runs the risk of really alienating the person they want to network with if they are taking COVID seriously and are uncomfortable with the request. Even if they aren’t, how effectively can you network while awkwardly sitting outside 6 feet apart?

    5. Oxford Comma*

      I could do a meeting at a coffee shop and our restrictions are pretty heavy, but there’s no way. Certainly not with someone who isn’t in a bubble with me.

      Short online meetings or phone calls yes, going somewhere physically and being in the same space with them, no.

  8. LQ*

    Be engaged in the conversation. When they do meet with you do not multi task during it. Turn your phone off, turn your emails off, turn all your beeping/distractions off, this is a meeting to really try to have when your kids/pets/house won’t bug you. Do not treat this like you’re wasting the person’s time, try to avoid even the perception of that. You asked for this. Be there, be fully there.

    Expect that the person you’re talking to may not have shut everything down. They are doing you a favor so if they ask you to wait one second while they answer a quick urgent message, wait, patiently, without getting annoyed about it. If they seem to have a lot of stuff offer to reschedule it when they are less busy, but it may be as good as it can get.

    That said, this kind of thing can be a nice break from other stuff. (I get asked to do a written version of this occasionally, which in general I prefer because I can do it whenever I want.) Especially if you’re engaged and asking good questions, it can be fun to do so don’t hestitate to try!

    1. Rocky*

      This is really great advice LQ! I’ve been surprised (and not in a good way) when I have done someone the favour of meeting to impart advice/context, only to have them distracted by other things.

  9. Nest*

    If this makes any difference, I don’t know. But, personally I dread invites like this. You can’t tell by looking at me and I likely won’t tell you, but I don’t like consuming calories I wasn’t planning for (have to manage my diet carefully for a chronic health issue) and I probably don’t want to walk somewhere or sit in an uncomfortable coffee shop chair because I have a chronic, invisible pain condition. I guess my point is that you may see these outings as a positive, but some people will be relieved not to have to do them and to network in other ways. Just a thought. :)

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      On that note, I have disordered eating and I physically cannot consume things around strangers often times. It feels like my stomach slams a steel trap door over itself “not accepting visitors, do not knock, go away.” style.

      Beverages are less awkward and difficult, since I can just let it chill and try to focus on the conversation, rarely does someone say “You’re not drinking your drink!” but it’s still a possiblity. But it gets awkwardly insufferable for me on the inside if someone wants to go to a coffee shop. A drink is often accompanied by a pastry or high calorie treat.

      So I’m way more happy to have someone just reach out and network either virtually or on the phone.

      1. RobotWithHumanHair*

        I have this same issue, I have a hard time consuming things around people that aren’t immediate family like my wife and kids are. I’m guessing mine stems from severe social anxiety. It’s going to be very, very interesting for me when we have to move in with my in-laws for a bit next month.

        So, yeah, face-to-face networking like this would be a nightmare for me, even without the consumption of food or drink.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Social anxiety is awful, thankfully I’ve found that being submerged with someone new, it gets better over time for me. I hope it does for you as well. Especially if you eventually can become close and comfortable with your inlaws. It took me over a year to get to that spot with my partner and it hasn’t been an issue afterwards, we’ve been together 7+ years now.

    2. Anon Lawyer*

      I mean, tons of drinks at coffee shops don’t have any calories. But I’m sure basically everyone would be receptive to “oh, it’s hard for me to meet in person – let’s have a phone call.” I did that all the time pre-Covid and had people do it for me.

      1. Cool and the Gang*

        Coffee itself doesn’t. A splash of milk (which may be too much still, I don’t know) and you are good to go!

        This is the only way I will drink coffee.

        Also tea. Tons of different types of tea.

      2. Nest*

        True, but depending on your preferences, it can be hard to find something without any calories, or without any caffeine. I have made an effort for my health to cut down on caffeine (and tons of other things, sadly – I have to keep a rather bland diet) so the whole trip is honestly one I’d rather avoid. And I know I’m not the only one.

    3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Yes. I was grateful for lockdown preventing me from seeing all kinds of people I didn’t feel like seeing. Someone wanting to network ? no way.

    4. Spencer Hastings*

      Ask Culture people, take note: this is what we mean when we point out that the mere act of asking puts pressure on people. From *your* perspective, the worst that could happen is that they say no. But it sounds like Nest says yes anyway (at least, that’s what I interpret being “relieved not to have to do them” to mean).

  10. hmmm*

    Maybe send a thank you note/ email. Nothing fancy, but acknowledge that they gave you a few minutes of their time and that you appreciate their insight.

  11. I'm just here for the cats*

    The alumni association at my Alma Mater has a networking events each month and they have turned virtual. I’ve heard of associations and such doing zoom networking events. Check with college, etc to see what might be going on.

  12. Thankful for AAM*

    Excellent advice as always. Now, could someone send it to my son who literally just complained about this very thing but does not enjoy articles his mom sends him! Lol.

  13. amoeba*

    Not sure if it has already been said, but I’d also suggest asking for a “virtual coffee”. We used to do zoom coffee breaks with our team when everybody was working from home. Obviously it’s up to the other person whether they actually get/prepare a beverage, and they could also drink coffee during a “normal” call, but I feel it just sounds less formal and nicer than “do you have time to talk”.

  14. ...*

    well, based on the comments here its REALLY going to vary person to person so you might want to provide a range of options. just from the few comments her video calls are bad, phone calls are unbearable, and going to a coffee shop is even worse than unbearable. You may want to have a few scenarios and adapt to whatever they prefer.

  15. Cool and the Gang*

    My question is how many “informational interviews” is the OP going on? It seems like a pretty frequent thing for something that feels like it should be infrequent.

    I’m a bit baffled by this letter.

    1. Olive Hornby*

      This really varies by field (and probably regionally, too.) Pre-covid, I probably had this kind of networking coffee a couple of times a week, split between people I’d reached out to and people who’d reached out to me. I’m a bit baffled by how much of an imposition people are making the OP’s requests out to be! I don’t (or didn’t) always say yes to meeting, and sometimes I did ask for a phone call vs. offering to meet someone. Sometimes people did the same to me (either said they were too busy to meet at all, or said coffee wouldn’t work, how about if I come to their office, or we talk by phone, etc.) Nobody was ever terribly offended.

      I agree OP should just ask for a phone call and say something about buying them a coffee when it’s safe to do so again. I would not send a gift card, which feels transactional in a way that buying them coffee doesn’t.

      1. Fieldpoppy*

        I think it’s field specific because while I network a lot it’s always in the space of work that I’m doing where there might be intersection (Think research or innovation projects), or the possibility of working together. I have so little time or energy for random networking — but that may be because I do work people sort of fall into, not work they consciously seek out. It is NOT a pleasant change of pace for me to interrupt the flow of my day, but I might just be kind of rigid :-)

        1. Cool and the Gang*

          We don’t really “network” in my industry. We meet with our clients (who are brokers and agents) to form relationships and promote our product, but they are our partners already.
          The idea is so foreign to me, so that’s why I was confused.
          I think I’d be receptive if someone from my alma mater reached out to me about this industry and they were a recent grad, but just random people wanting to know things…nah.

    2. Eukomos*

      You go on a ton when you’re trying to break into a new field. If you haven’t worked in it before then you need to know a) the details of the job positions and the work cultures at the places hiring in your area so you know where to look and b) people who can point you towards jobs that are good matches and assure the hiring manager that you are indeed a match worth talking to. Otherwise you end up sending infinite resumes off into the void that hiring managers ignore because you don’t have a work history in the field, regardless of whether your skillset is actually a decent match.

      I’m not really sure why you think they’d be infrequent? I’d think either you’re career switching like me and doing dozens, or you’re in the loop and don’t need to do them at all. Aside from being the person who’s asked for an II, which hopefully wouldn’t be obnoxiously frequent though I know people in cool, visible jobs or industries sometimes get deluged.

      1. Cool and the Gang*

        Just not done in my field, I thought maybe after one or two you would get the point of the other industry and then stop contacting random people. I guess this is some-what normal in other places though given what I’ve read above.

  16. LTL*

    This is more general networking, so it won’t work if you have someone specific in mind. But lunchclub.ai is a nice resource for meeting new people and networking. It basically asks for your availability and if you want to set up a meeting that week and matches you with someone. But I’m not sure if someone who already has an account would have to send you an invite.

  17. Nesprin*

    One of the nicest things about “could we meet for coffee” is the implied guidelines on time frame (the 20-30min it takes to get and drink a coffee and chat, with the option to bail quickly when you’re done with your coffee) and formality (not at all formal, some socialization impiled, fine if you’re 5min late, not intended to be private). There’s a need for social agreement on a similar scale virtual meeting, since can we talk on the phone for 30 min was a different beast in the before times.

  18. MrsFillmore*

    This may be slightly off topic, but I want to say please do not be discouraged by higher than usual rate of negative responses right now to these requests, which probably have nothing to do with coffee or the lack of coffee.

    Speaking personally, I’m a semi-frequent recipient of networking requests and, in the normal times, try to find 30 min for someone who frames well, ie makes it specific along the lines that Alison recommends. In the Covid times, I’ve turned down most requests from people whom I don’t already know, or asked them to ping me again in 3 months when I might be more available (so far, no one has done this). For a while, this was because I didn’t have childcare, now I do have childcare at least temporarily but need to preserve any time I can for my own mental health.

    That said, I also agree with Alison that it makes sense to keep asking! Just don’t be discouraged when folks need to decline.

  19. Yorick*

    I would suggest a virtual coffee but also give the option of a phone call. Some people are really exhausted with all the zoom meetings, but some people don’t have too many and some people may actually feel pretty lonely. I’m working from home with a team that has one weekly meeting, I live with a partner who’s also always at home, and I’m longing for contact with someone else.

  20. GoBlueAlumni!*

    I’m registered with some online networking thing for undergrads at my school, and though I’m always happy to help out a current student, honestly I’d rather just give advice via email than do any kind of meeting. Actually arranging coffee/call/chat is a much bigger pain than responding to email than I want, and I don’t care if someone buys me a coffee. So people might mind less than you’d think!

  21. Solar Moose*

    I’ve given up on networking during the pandemic. I just find video chat too fatiguing at this point. It’s one of those things where life might pick up again after the pandemic, but I just can’t for now.

  22. AussieD*

    Agree, something about this letter read Australian to me. We’re all missing sitting in our cafes here in Melbourne.

  23. Mizzle*

    I think it depends on the person (and the work they’re doing) whether the request would feel like “a huge imposition” or not. In my case, working in the office was a much “richer” experience than working from home is. Not just in terms of social chat (saying “good morning”, asking about the weekend) but also the more serendipitous work conversations where you overhear someone trying to do X, and you can tell them about the solution you found last year.

    For me, a request for an information interview would be a welcome chance to do something outside of the too-narrow scope of my working-from-home. Plus, a one-on-one chat is much more fun than a big virtual meeting.

    Finally, you have two things going for you: you’ll express your gratitude immediately (I hope), so it’s instant gratification, and there will be no homework (sorry, “action items”) for the person you interview. Sounds like a great way to spend part of my working day!

  24. ATU 333*

    This is maybe not the most applicable solution in some places right now, but I recently acted as the welcoming staff member for a new starter who joined our organisation during lockdown. There was always money budgeted for a coffee meet-up for this kind of activity, so I asked permission to use that money to use a service that sends out a speciality box of tea (with 2 bags in it) and a pack of biscuits (cookies – UK company here) to her. Not only was her manager pleased with the suggestion, the new starter was delighted when it arrived. I think the company put on a sticker that said ‘Don’t open until x date!’ which was when our welcome meeting was. It cost the same as 2x lattes at a cafe, and was a nice surprise for her (there was a personalised note inside as well). It takes some foresight, and probably doesn’t work for every situation, but I just thought I’d share it as an alternative to a cafe visit right now!

  25. Snailing*

    I had luck with asking a coworker for virtual coffee – I’d tangentially worked with her on a couple client questions and she’s in a position I’m interested in moving to down the line in my career. I spun it as “Hopefully we can meet in person and grab coffee together once this is more back to normal!” and just asked for 15-20 minutes with her over Zoom and she was happy to do it. I think doing it virtually actually makes it easier/quicker for whomever you’re asking and then acknowledging that you’d normally offer coffee lets them know that intent is there, that you know you’re taking up their time but appreciate it.

  26. I'll say it*

    I get asked for this a lot. the only thing I can add is give the person options for how to do it. I’m on zoom for like 4/5ths of my life, it feels like, so a plain old phone call is so much more preferable. some people prefer to have more of a face to face. but let the person you’re asking choose, is my advice.

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