A five part series written for remote professionals who want to take their life and careers to a new level. This is Part Four in the series.
For many of us in the digital design and development fields, we didn’t plan our futures around the notion that we’d have to be in constant contact with strangers in order to ensure we retain a job. In fact, most of us probably assumed that the work itself—and all the people that came with that company—would be built into the job, and that’s about it. The idea that we’d need to “work for it” wasn’t in my brain space, certainly.
But with how quickly remote work and technology is moving inside most industries today, we’ve found ourselves in a situation where we must, as a matter of survival, continuously be aware of what’s happening around us. At a bare minimum, understanding trends and what particular heads of our field are saying at any given time.
Yet still, with passive “networking” through blogs and apps like LinkedIn, our culture has tried its best to remove the personal touch. Suddenly, social-stalking and requesting a connection is supposedly the same as shaking hands over conversation. A passive note on email or social is intended to make an impression.
What I’ve found, however, is that a truly personal touch still makes us (and our work)—you guessed it—personal.
Lighting The Fire
A decade ago I left a crummy job, thought I was about to be hired by another shop, and soon found myself dusted on the curb when it didn’t pan out. From that moment forward, my poor youth-filled decision making process forced me to adapt and understand the battle that is networking and relationship building. It lit a fire under my ass, and quickly.
Roughly 18 months ago, I launched an article for creatives aimed at helping them network more successfully. The article was geared towards those in my own industry, whereas this Remote Life piece will be focused on the larger macro concepts for all remote employees.
Let’s define what networking really means, understand how relationships are built, and identify what we need to do to keep going despite setbacks.
The term “networking” gets tossed around quite a bit, but if we were to boil it down for the sake of definition for our purposes here, it might sound something like this:
The act of convening with others inside or outside of my own industry for the purpose of meeting new people, learning something new, and (potentially) discussing collaboration on a future project.
In a nutshell, the goal being: connect, learn, expand. Find new faces to engage with, take away something new from the experience, and potentially grow that into something that didn’t exist before meeting.
A lot of people go into networking without relationships in mind. The concept of networking has always been black and white, whereas you enter a space with the goal of leaving with new work. Well, it doesn’t really work that way, at least in my experience.
Never will I go into a networking event thinking that I’m going to walk away with more work for my business. Nor will I enter that space expecting to meeting 2, 3, 4… new people that will immediately enter my greater network of colleagues or friends.
The curse and the beauty of such events is that some are great, while others are complete duds.
There’s an important line in the sand here, though; a distinction I want to make clear. I can hear the sales-head readers out there shouting, “What?! Of course you go into networking events with the aim of getting new business!” To which I’d say, I don’t disagree.
But my point is, if you go into an event drenched in sales most people don’t want to talk with you. On the flip side, genuinely getting to know a few people (and their current situations) is a much better way to empathize before any “selling” might take place.
With remote teams becoming more and more isolated within home offices or niche co-working spaces, it’s never been more important to stretch the legs and get back out in the world.
I can see it now: five years down the road, a massive remote work force, and an overarching inability to communicate with other humans. If you’ve ever gone heads-down with a project for a week or two, isn’t it tough to feel comfortable in real life conversation again? I know it can be for me.
The more satiated we get within our bubbles at home, or around the same few office folk, the less inclined we are to seek outside of those spaces. But relationships are there for the taking; it’s simply a matter of seeking with a purpose and without expectation.
If there is no expectation when walking into networking situations, what is success? It’s a great question, and one that I’ve found has a very delicate answer.
Building relationships requires a few things to be successful, and one of them is an initial lack of expectation. Not expecting to make a sale or meet a new friend is paramount. It’s a mental reset before you walk in.
Beyond the mindset, it’s putting forth effort to engage in conversation. Ask questions, be a listener, and learn about those around you. If you find yourself uninterested, that’s fair, and you can politely part ways and pop over to a new group of people. But if you find a connection—an interesting story, angle, similarity—well, that’s a great thing. Stick around, learn more, and at the very least exchange contact information.
If you attend an event with a speaker and you have a question, ask it. Be that person that stands up, or grabs the mic and asks the question.
The more you begin to question yourself, or the validity of your question, the less you’ll be inclined to say anything to anyone on the way out, too. Who knows—your question may spark more conversation. Someone might pull you aside on the way out; you just never know.
A successful venture in the networking scene is one where you feel fulfilled walking away. Having met some new faces, and potentially exchanged information, is a great start to something bigger down the line. As has been said before, the seeds are being planted.
Potentially the most difficult lesson to learn is that you’ll more often hear no (or nothing at all) rather than a yes. Ongoing connections and conversations can be quite rare at times. And yet, during other times, they can fall from the sky like rain. Networking and new professional relationships can often feel that way.
Over the years I’ve gone to specific events consistently, and often see totally new faces every single time. That means one thing: most of those people came and went once, feeling like they received nothing for their time, and that’s a mistake in my opinion.
When we cherry pick events or meet up groups, essentially we’re putting all stock into a singular event in time, hoping it brings us this or that. But why? Is that really logical or fruitful? Probably not.
What I’m not saying here is to continue to go to that weekly or monthly event if it truly gets you nowhere for your specific goals. Perhaps you want to meet similarly-minded people, or find freelance work. If an event is literally not producing anything of the sort, part ways and look elsewhere.
The fastest way to kill potential networking opportunities is to dive bomb into a single event, every so often, never retaining a true sense of that group or the people that attend.
The more you stick around, the more you’ll learn. And, too, the more you’ll know if you should look elsewhere.
Make It Recurring
My own networking approach is one that involves recurring, diversified exploration. I’m never putting all of my stock into a single event—especially in my own professional field—because the best way to expand our minds (and potentially network reach) is to see what’s going on all around us.
Over the last year I’ve aimed to visit 1-2 events per month that are setup by larger organizations. This might be a creative event, a cycling industry event, or something entirely different I find on a website.
What am I looking for? Something I can relate to, or that I’m genuinely interested in, so the experience isn’t a waste of others’ time (not to mention my own).
I also visit neighboring Boulder (I’m in Denver) every few months to get the pulse for what’s happening only a few miles away, in the “bubble” of that nearby city. Most people are more than willing to connect over coffee to chat about their company and what’s happening at that time. These networking days are a way for me to not only revisit old colleagues and friends, but to also to research and strategically approach networking on an entirely different level.
For example, perhaps there’s a startup that’s doing something interesting I’d like to learn more about. Or, I want to reconnect with an old friend and colleague that now works for XYZ company. And in my specific case, as a cyclist, aim to catch a ride with a few people I see organizing a lunch ride.
Beyond traditional networking events, self-made Boulder days, and other events that show up on my social calendar, my approach to networking and building relationships remains diversified. But most importantly, recurring.
While I may be a business owner—my networking strategies a little more involved—the biggest key is that anyone can succeed in growing personal networks, to finding new work, by remaining dedicated to the act of getting out there.
When I talk to someone discouraged about meeting new connections or finding work, I can empathize immediately. But I also know nothing attained on one’s own in the real world comes easily. Stick it out; find your inner grit.
While you may need to grumpily return to something you felt didn’t work the first time, and (potentially) develop a bit of a thicker skin, I’m confident building relationships from networking endeavors—however rare at times—are entirely attainable for anyone willing to put forth the effort.
This post originally appeared on the Authentic Form & Function journal.