Do your colleagues seem like nothing more than rectangles in a video chat window or, worse, faceless names over email or instant messenger? Does it seem like everyone knows each other except for you?
If so, you are not alone. In fact, only 14% of employees report feeling more confident when it comes to socializing with their colleagues. Translation: we may be connected, but we aren’t feeling much connection.
Though leaders can and should do more to help every employee feel a sense of connection and belonging, you can also take control, as I learned from interviewing over 500 professionals across industries and job types.
Here are nine hidden opportunities to build relationships at work:
Reply directly to people in emails and instant messages
Each time you are cc’ed on an email or invited to an instant message group is a new opportunity for you to look at who’s in the “room”—and introduce yourself. Reply directly to the message sender with a compliment. Identify someone with a shared background to you and tell them, “I couldn’t help but notice you’re also ____,” followed by an offer to chat or at least look out for each other. Wish that departing coworker well when they send their final, office-wide farewell email.
Follow up after smaller group meetings
Each time you have a comment or question that you didn’t get a chance to raise in a meeting is a new opportunity for you to approach and spark a conversation with someone later, one-on-one. Whether it’s a congratulating someone (Great job with that presentation!) or asking a brief question (Could you tell me more about how this office process works?), you will have a few conversation topics to warm things up with. All you need to do is know is which follow-up to use, in order to break the ice.
Follow up after town halls or group workshops
Events that involve an entire team, department, or even company are more than just about sharing information. They are also hidden opportunities to meet people you wouldn’t have otherwise met.
A pro tip: Do your homework on a particular speaker you care to impress. Then, ask a well-researched question to make a distinct impression.
Engage with your assigned buddy (and ask for introductions)
Even if you don’t quite get along with your company-assigned mentor or “buddy,” they can be a gateway to meeting more people in the firm. A question like, “Do you happen to be connected to anyone who . . . ?”
A simple ask like this can be all it takes to spark a first connection with someone you wouldn’t have otherwise met.
Join committees or working groups (virtually or otherwise)
From employee or business resource groups (ERGs or BRGs) to hiring committees, cross-company working groups can be a great way to meet people—particularly senior people who care to give back. These committees offer an additional advantage: they give you a common interest, experience, or identity to break the ice with—and to bond over.
Introduce yourself to people you only met online
When you find yourself in the office, make a list of colleagues you’ve only met over email, phone, or video chat and figure out where they sit. Then, approach them with a “just thought I’d introduce myself in person given that we’ve only ever met online!”
Send a cold email asking about someone’s work or career path
Scroll through your company’s internal directory, and identify the people you’d like to work with, learn from, or simply have a conversation with. Then, reach out with a “I noticed ____ and would love to learn more about how you navigated from ___ to ___. Would you be free for a short conversation at the following times?”
If your company doesn’t have an internal directory, search for current or former employees using LinkedIn.
Volunteer for cross-functional or cross-organizational projects
Large projects may be bureaucratic, but they are also hidden opportunities to meet people across departments or even geographic locations, therefore serving as a conduit to individuals you would rarely make contact with. If you have the bandwidth and the project in question doesn’t look unwieldy, consider raising your hand.
Camp out in high-traffic areas
After over a year of sitting alone in our pajamas, it can be tempting to grab that laptop and hide away in a cubicle or side room, even when you’re in the office. This is a missed opportunity to maximize your run-ins with others—and negates the value of being in the office in the first place. Camp out in the communal pantry, near a bathroom, or out in the open—and turn eye contact into a nod into a smile into a “so, no more working from home, huh?”
As intimidating as the word “networking” may be, we’ve all done it before (probably in kindergarten when it seemed like second nature to convert “strangers” into “acquaintances” into “allies”). All it takes is someone to step up break the ice. And in the event that others don’t do it, you can be the person to change the dynamic.
Gorick Ng is the author of The Wall Street Journal-bestseller The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right. He is a career adviser at Harvard College, specializing in coaching first-generation, low-income students and professionals. He is a former management consultant at Boston Consulting Group and researcher with the managing the “future of work” project at Harvard Business School.