Networking online: an interview with Athena’s Sophie Fleming

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Written by Mo Lawson

For many people life has been far from ‘business as usual’ since the coronavirus locked the world away, but it didn’t take long (for those of us who were able) to develop new ways of working.
This included my Athena Network, a UK-wide networking, training and development organisation for women in business. Regional groups meet on a regular basis to swap business ideas, form contacts, provide support and make referrals. There are also coffee mornings and one-off events, depending on which region you belong to. Oh, and lunch.
Athena North London Regional Director Sophie Fleming talks about how Athena has dealt with the restrictions placed on our work and how – for a growing circle of people – business is better than ever.

Sophie Fleming by Natalia Zapala-Movshovitz
Sophie Fleming by Natalia Zapala-Movshovitz

ML: How are Athena meetings usually run?
SF: Meetings are held once a month over lunch in a regular venue, where a diverse range of women from different sectors meet to collaborate, support and generate business.

ML: How long did it take for the network to put a cohesive plan into action?
SF: It seemed to happen overnight. Fortunately our HQ was already working on an idea for a virtual club, so when the virus hit, they put together a virtual handbook with a worst-case scenario for a lockdown situation, meaning we already had that contingency plan in place. Most Regional Directors, like me, had already bought a full Zoom package, and in my case the lockdown began during a lull between events, so I had plenty of time to learn before the next meeting.

ML: How do online meetings work?
SF: They follow much the same structure. Where we usually have a time for informal networking, we now put members into breakout rooms, switching groups every ten minutes or so to enable everyone to meet. People can’t move around as they would in real life, but they can request to connect with specific attendees, and if I see obvious links I’ll make sure those connections are made. After that we’re back in the main chat room and the formal meeting begins, and I chair it using Zoom tools. One big advantage of running things this way is that the main speakers have all the shared screen functions that enable whiteboard display and interaction. And instead of physically exchanging business cards we just add our social media links as a chat comment.

ML: What’s the reaction been, and what changes have you witnessed in people’s work?
SF: I’ve had such positive feedback. Members have appreciated how fast we adapted and how we continue to support everyone. The extra benefit of our new online Pass + system, allowing members to visit any virtual group for free, has given everyone a wider reach right across the UK. In terms of business adaptations, we’ve seen brilliant workshops and webinars springing up, with members not just learning but embracing the new technologies; especially impressive for those who had never used anything like it before. I’ve enrolled several new members, and in many ways there is more interest than ever, as it’s now such a great way of staying in touch.

ML: What’s the key to running and attending a successful online meeting?
SF: My best tip is the same online as it is for face to face meetings: always prepare well. Write your monthly minute in advance and practise it. Get your contact links ready and make sure you’re set up for the call. If someone is new to Zoom I invite them to join 15 minutes early, so we can make sure everything is working. I take them through lighting options, how to use the unmute function and turn the video off in case of interruptions, and how to use the chat box and display reactions. It’s been heartening to see people maintaining a sense of professionalism and managing the dynamics as they would in our face to face meetings, sticking to the schedule and being positive and supportive to one another. 

ML: How have things been for your own business?
I’m an Arbonne consultant and I sell health and wellness through my website, so I’ve seen no real change in my online working methods. As things have been busier since we have set up online meetings, my workload has doubled, but I am still able to send items out. It’s been hectic but so productive!

ML: Can you see Athena keeping any of these new meeting methods for future use?
There were already plans to set up a virtual club, which launched last week. For specific groups it depends on the region: some are planning on maintaining their online groups. For North London, I think we’ll keep our very popular Cocktail Connections, meeting online for a well-earned drink after work…


Thanks to Sophie and the network I’ve been able to access groups that would normally involve a train and taxi to reach. Sophie is planning a pop-in meeting in May for anyone wanting more information, click here for tickets. And you can find out more about the Athena Network here