Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.
You’re in one of two categories: you’re relieved to work from home because now you don’t have to interact with so many people in-person in the course of your work, or you really miss the opportunities to interact meaningfully.
Research by Marissa King and Balazs Kovacs, from the Yale School of Management, shows our circuits have shrunk by 16 percent during the pandemic. Even without a pandemic, we are constantly losing circles, old school friends, colleagues from former workplaces, commute buddies, our children’s friends’ parents, etc., to divorce, relocation, changes in job and other life circumstances. Women, who carry a disproportionate burden of housework tend to seek less opportunities to connect ‘in other ways’ from work than men, who use sports, hobbies, smoking breaks and drinks to connect.
Interestingly, research shows that people tend to think their networks are smaller than they are in times of crisis, they carry a feeling of having fewer contacts and resources to rely on, and this gets amplified if you’re already dealing with lack. So the urge to be connected, especially with people in positions of power in the field we operate in, increases. Reconnection helps us seal our sense of identity, self-worth, and also locates us in a space where we affirm the resources available to us.
Here are ways to actively reconnect:
1. Locate a network of mentors: people you have previously worked with who have moved out and up, advisers, experts who don’t necessarily have skin in the game of your career trajectory. So, ex-bosses and colleagues are fine, not current ones. They also offer the best advice about places they have worked in with you after they have left. Actively connect by expressing admiration for recent work, seeking advice, opportunities to pick their brains, recommended reads or leads. The purpose of this connection is clearly within a hierarchy, in which you learn from them.
2. Peer play: Create a flow of exchanges with teammates and colleagues in the extended workplace in ways that are not straight up work-related. Trade recipes, games, TV show trivia, parenting or work-life balance tips, reading recommendations, wellness, sports and fitness tips and practices. The peer group can get competitive, so find ways for this rivalry to be healthy, playful and yet communicative outside of work. Who has read the most interesting books or listened to the most interesting podcasts this month is a good rivalry to have.
3. Collaborators: Who in your extended industry can you build ‘adjacent’ ties with? This could be as simple as calling up an acquaintance in a rival company to find out vendor recommendations for an event they recently hosted. You may not actually need the vendor, but you can now offer praise for how well they pulled it off. That will be remembered. It also allows you an inside track on adjacent information, such as personnel movements, hiring vacancies, and buzz about increment slabs and promotions. This could also stem from unexpected places and unusual collaborations, such as your children’s friends’ parents at school or a hobby class.
4. Sources: Distinguish between sources and collaborators. A collaborator could be a peer at some point. A source is protected from ever being in the open but passes vital information on. It could be the personal assistant of the chairman whom you offer a lift to on the way home, or share a lunch with. You don’t want to ‘exploit’ the source too often, save it for when necessary, but the relationship is information based and transactional.
5. Work friendships: Are there such things as work friendships? We form bonds with people we work with, but often the friendship has a better chance of lasting after we exit the organization, and the rivalry or transactional nature ceases. While in the workplace it is better to distinguish work friends as people we would trust, like, engage with, help and connect with but retain a wall of professionalism with. Save your deepest darkest secrets for the school friends.
6. Friends: Wherever your friends are, and from whatever time in your life, they sustain the emotional transactions that lend our feelings validation and reciprocity. If you don’t have many opportunities to meet, phone calls are better than video calls because the voice conveys emotions. Periodic connections over coffee, calls or connecting when you watched something that reminded you of them, met a common friend, need advice, need to vent, gossip, enquire, listen, or check in on parents and siblings you may also know are ways to keep the connection alive. The less materially transactional and the more emotionally transactional this exchange is, the better it works.
When you’re able to classify your networking and social needs, you will be able to also use your time to connect with people in each category more functionally. Materially transactional relationships can begin to feel empty, so you need to balance them out with emotional transactions also. If you’re only always hanging around mentors, it doesn’t do much for your ego, it keeps you small, you need peer play to feel competitive and active. Access to people outside your immediate work group gives you a sense of having a resource pool in tough times and feels reassuring. Networking consciously has great mental and material benefits, if done right.
How to network consciously
1. Categorise the kinds of networks you will need to build.
2. Look at your day/week, are you investing more time in one kind than another?
3. Balance out your networking schedule.
4. What are your material, professional and emotional, personal needs at this time? Identify which network will boost them best.5. Grow laterally, not vertically, which can feel isolating.