These days almost everyone is trying to disconnect from an overwhelming amount of social media interactions, including their professional ones, so it’s hard to imagine that we need to increase our online connectedness. In today’s reality of an ever-increasing virtual workforce, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic driving everyone into a virtual role there are some steps you should take to build or strengthen your virtual community. Most likely you already have a Slack, Teams, or chat environment with your co-workers and keep in touch with your other networks via LinkedIn, Facebook, or email. While some of the benefits of increasing your connectivity will seem obvious it would reason that everyone is already doing them but NEWSFLASH – most people are not or if they are, they’re not doing them well. It’s important to approach embracing your virtual community as a ubiquitous component of a new way of working becausean extensive virtual community will enhance your job performance and it is critical to your professional and personal well-being while working remotely.
There are many great ways to virtually connect with current and former colleagues, as well as your extended professional network. Virtual meetings are more inclusive and diverse because those that are fully remote or otherwise unavailable to meet in person can also participate. Here are a few suggestions on how you can increase your professional connectivity while fully virtual:
CONNECT with your colleagues via virtual social events: Virtual coffee, lunch, or happy hour is almost as good as in-person and you can even meet new co-workers this way! Slack and websites such as randomcoffee will arbitrarily connect co-workers for a virtual meeting, even providing icebreakers and suggested meeting times.
OFFER to host a virtual knowledge sharing session with your colleagues: Share your professional or personal passion with your coworkers; online polling sites such as doodle.com and menti.com make it easy to discover each other’s capabilities and interests. Holding these sessions during non-work hours (usually during lunchtime, thus the common reference to “brown bags”) makes them zero cost options for your employer.
ADD a virtual component to your local Meetups: While Meetups may continue during the pandemic as all-virtual gatherings, having a virtual component in addition to your in-person gathering after the pandemic will greatly expand your network! Consider hosting in two on-site locations (reducing the travel time for attendees) and connecting them through point-to-point videoconferencing. Inviting speakers to participate virtually will also expand the breadth of your presentation quality and options.
CONNECT informally with former colleagues: These connections are often just social distractions that help break up the monotony of a long day of virtual work. Connecting this way tends to be less intrusive than connecting with current colleagues, who may expect you to include a professional topic beyond just socializing. I have a former colleague that loves animated gifs and knows I enjoy seeing something off the wall every once in a while via text; while a tap-back (a thumbs up or emoji from my phone) is often all the communicating I do, these connections can also lead to deeper conversations about the work you are currently doing. They are great icebreakers into sharing training ideas, job opportunities or just catching up on personal news, but don’t take it too far, it’s still a professional relationship.
CONNECT formally with former colleagues with an invitation for a virtual coffee, lunch or happy hour: Hopefully you are maintaining your professional relationships with former coworkers by meeting in-person but don’t let distance or COVID-19 keep you from continuing these interactions, offer a virtual meeting instead. They are convenient, can be short in length, and will keep your relationships from getting stale.
PARTICIPATE in LinkedIn groups, professional organizations’ virtual communities, and take advantage of free webinars: Yes, some of these forums can be sales tools but they’re free and you will likely expand your virtual network and learn something new. Don’t forget to share these opportunities and experiences with your virtual colleagues!
VOLUNTEER: Yes, believe it or not there are opportunities to remotely volunteer to help out non-profits virtually. Maybe they are struggling to coordinate or create the types of events and activities mentioned above or they could have work that can be done virtually, just like your day job. I was a virtual essay grader for a national student organization; it was interesting, I learned a lot, and I may get to judge at their next national conference, which, who knows, could be virtual too.
Your friends and personal acquaintances are a great way to expand your virtual community in a “light-touch” sort of way, providing a much-needed respite for online working, and improving your mental health. Here are a few suggestions on how you can stay virtually connected with friends and personal acquaintances:
JOIN an online health support group: Virtual live health coaches are a great way to develop some positive behaviors while working remotely. Omada offers both self-pay and insurance/corporate partnerships to provide coaching that includes weight, food, and step tracking, as well as group and one-on-one messaging. A completely free and personal option is to identify a group of friends that want to participate in an online yoga class together. Others agree to daily check-ins to share how their feeling and identify what they are grateful for. I recently met a budding mindfulness coach during and online conference, she is now building a word-of-mouth network to host a free, brief, daily mindfulness session – what a way to start or end your day!
CREATE a private Facebook group with those that share your professional interests: Many small businesses use private Facebook groups to market their products and services to friends and share job opportunities. Another great use of these groups is to create a trustworthy support group where you can privately get suggestions for problems you may be facing at work with a co-worker, manager or difficult assignment. Be careful though, anything you post can be copied and shared, even by the most trusted advisors.
CREATE a recurring virtual meetup with your friends: Schedule these events as “come when you can” invitations with no driving, daycare, or getting dressed required. Consider running it with a Lean Coffee format so it never gets stale and set a theme in advance to gain attendance – professional, social, and “anything goes” can all be great conversation starters.
Whether you are working from home by choice, employer mandate, or because of COVID-19, the amount of time you will be spending alone makes it important to avoid anxiety, stress, and loneliness by staying connected, reconnecting, and forming new connections. These virtual connections have all the professional advantages of in-person activities while also helping you stay busy, healthy, and engaged with others.