During today’s stressful remote work period, many people are increasingly unsure how to build, maintain, and leverage their networks to lift their careers. When working from home, all of these difficulties are exacerbated, since how do we make new contacts and stay in touch with existing ones when we can’t engage with other people face-to-face?
Nevertheless, building and maintaining an effective network is as important of a career asset when you are working from home as when you are working in the office. A properly structured and well-functioning network facilitates your ability to obtain personal and professional advice, technical and non-public information, cultural and political insight, and intellectual and emotional support.
And when working from home, a strong network provides a sense of community (which otherwise may be missing). A well-established group of connections is a reminder you’re not alone and that there are people who care about and value you.
To build a robust network, you can look at how to overcome the principal difficulties people associate with networking; then focus on the steps to do so effectively from home.
The purpose of networking
When people declare they dislike networking or are not good at it, this is most often because they feel uncomfortable going to large networking events and cocktail receptions where they are expected to talk to people they don’t know. Oftentimes, the conversation takes place around unfamiliar topics while collecting forgettable business cards. In fact, such structured, impersonal, “hope-I-will-meet-someone useful” events are the antithesis of effective networking.
As Derek Coburn writes for Harvard Business Review, professionals are well-advised to “avoid traditional networking events almost entirely.”
Truly effective networking is not about trying to sell a product (usually yourself) to as many people as possible in the hopes they will refer customers or clients to you, make introductions, facilitate transactions, or pass on information.
On the contrary—genuinely effective networking involves establishing mutually interesting, satisfying, and productive relationships with a limited number of strategically selected people. When people start to view networking in this more limited, focused, self-controlled way, they typically start seeing it as an engaging, enjoyable, and highly valuable activity.
Identify worthwhile connections
People are often reluctant to actively participate in networks because they underestimate their ability to provide value to other network participants. Self-doubt about your ability to be an effective networker typically vanishes when they realize their efforts only need to target a select group of strategic connections, with whom they share substantive interests and specific characteristics.
For example, you might want your network participants to include people who can provide you with information, ideas, and expertise not otherwise available to you; people willing to be mentors and sponsors; people who will give you a candid sounding board and honest feedback; and people who can provide emotional support and bolster your sense of self-worth.
You may want different or additional types of people in your network, but the important point is that it is entirely up to you who you include. And there doesn’t have to be a large number of them (12 to 18 should be sufficient).
Networking effectively from home
Effective networking of the sort we have been discussing does not depend on in-person interaction. Effective networking doesn’t need to depend on in-person interaction; it can be done comparably well from home, too. Although there are several things that require an extra effort when working from home. Here is how to manage networking from home.
To be noticed as a person of competence, confidence is essential. You can’t network by keeping your head down and only doing excellent work. You must also use every work-related interaction—whether by email, a messaging app, phone, or video conference—to present yourself as a person with presence, talent, and warmth.
As important as these interactions are, however, they are not sufficient to make you visible to some of the key people you want in your network, particularly those who can provide you with advice, tips on new employment opportunities, and information on industry developments. Therefore, you should find a way to periodically keep in touch with everyone in your network, such as through email, virtual chat, or traditional phone calls.
LinkedIn is one of the best ways to stay in touch with your network members, but it is also an effective way to build your network. To do this, be sure your profile is up-to-date, join groups, and comment on other people’s posts. You can also reach out to people whose work you admire or who hold positions you aspire to. Many of these people are also working from home and may welcome the opportunity for some (virtual) social interaction. So don’t hesitate to send along a note of admiration or praise.
Another tried-and-true tip: Ask someone you know to introduce you. Look to professional associations, alumni groups, or service organizations in which you have a bevy of connections to start building new relationships. When you’ve found someone you’re interested in speaking with, take the initiative to invite them to a virtual coffee date. Another particularly effective way to connect with people you don’t know is to ask them for an interview for your blog, webcast, podcast, or article.
There is no telling how long we will be working from home, but it will not be for the rest of your career. While we are working from home, however, you should not let it stop your networking—or your career advancement. Whatever way you reach out to new connections, keep in mind that you are just as talented, capable, and interesting (just not as accomplished yet) as the people you are contacting. Focus on the long term, don’t sweat the small stuff, and laugh as much as you can.
Andrea Kramer and Al Harris are communication and gender bias experts and authors. They have spent more than 30 years helping women advance in their careers through writing, speaking, and mentoring.