What’s the most common piece of advice you’ve ever gotten about advancing your career? Odds are it’s “network, network, network.”
But so much of that advice has to do with networking outside your organization. Rarely do we specifically speak about internal networking, and that’s a big mistake. Internal networks have enormous value for businesses. They help your employees create a bond with their organization and strengthen your culture, increasing retention and improving employee experience.
Moreover, research from McKinsey indicates that internal networking helps knowledge transfer throughout your business:
“As we studied these social and informal networks, we made a surprising discovery: how much information and knowledge flows through them and how little through official hierarchical and matrix structures… [W]e concluded that the formal structures of companies, as manifested in their organizational charts, don’t explain how most of their real day-to-day work gets done.”
Encouraging and cultivating internal networks in your organization is important to creating the responsive, agile teams your organization needs to thrive and react to sudden changes in the marketplace. But, as with anything in your organization, letting a process revert to the default is a recipe for disaster. Networks must be waged.
Establish a culture of informal internal networks during orientation
If you want to establish a strong culture that sticks, start early and emphasize often. Take steps to encourage informal internal networking during onboarding. Make sure that beginning their first day, people are encouraged to meet their colleagues — not just in their own department but across the organization. This will help your new employees build their internal networks more quickly, and it can go a long way toward building cross-departmental bridges.
Here are a few ways to create structured methods for people to meet their new coworkers at orientation:
- Curate the seating chart so that no one sits with people from their own department.
- Get creative with icebreaker questions you leave on each chair so that your new employees will be able to quickly build new connections.
- Assign a group leader who can sit with new hires during lunch to facilitate conversation.
- Incentivize new employees to grab a caffeinated beverage with a new colleague with a five or ten-dollar gift card to a local coffee shop.
- Ensure every new employee knows how to access the available tools they have to navigate the composition of their new org and forge their new network. Bonus points if those tools help employees learn about these colleagues as humans, not just job titles.
Outline formal internal networking processes for onboarding and beyond
Informal networking should feel organic to your employees and, ideally, require little management. However, not everyone is an extrovert, and sometimes it’s useful to throw a little organizational weight behind a particularly important opportunity to forge connections. This is why it’s important to install structured networking processes as well.
Create a consistent process for introducing people in their first 90 days to other people on their team and in their department, and others across the organization you think they should meet. For accountability, consider creating a checklist or “scavenger hunt” that confirms that each employee has met the colleagues they should. This could include specific individuals, folks with similar roles, or people who are in different roles but have similar backgrounds. Even if the employees who connect do completely different things, the way they apply their experience can spark creative ideas.
Work with the leaders of each department to drive buy-in from the top, and to better understand the nuances between teams. Sharing perspectives about where silos might form gives you the opportunity to stop them before they solidify. They can also help clarify the goals of networking and ice-breaker activities, not only as they are planned but in the debriefing. It’s important to be intentional about what activities are promoted and why. Having fun together is absolutely a goal, but it can’t be the only goal. Otherwise, it may come off to some as hollow, or a waste of valuable work time.
Connect along common ground
Peer mentorship programs are also an effective way to build legacy networks that deliver real value to their members. Survey employees to learn more about what groups they want to be formed. Make sure to expand perspectives beyond direct professional development and consider forming mentorships around interests, demographics, and education. Topics can be breezy, like a common interest in knitting or sports, or be impactful and supportive, like a group for parents of children with different abilities.
All this may sound a bit like blind dating, but it will show your employees that you care about them finding their place within the company, and that you want to make an investment in their success. It’s also something that will aid your onboarding process in a way that won’t eat into your employees’ or managers’ time. Research shows many organizations don’t spend enough time on onboarding, and creating this networking structure extends the best parts of onboarding in a way that doesn’t feel like a series of meaningless trainings.
Measure your leaders on how they build networks
Leaders have a lot on their plates, and the task of bringing the team together can fall down the to-do list when it’s pitted against deadlines, presentations, budget meetings, etc. That’s why organizations need to ensure that they encourage — or maybe even require — leaders to develop the professional networks of those under their command.
This doesn’t mean you need to mandate specific strategies. But leaders should be expected to plan events that encourage network building, such as after-work happy hours, cross-department lunches, and peer mentorship programs. Trust your leaders to come up with the best solutions for their teams and their networking needs, and provide resources if they need them. Different people will respond to different avenues; what matters is that those people are making connections along the way.
Long story short: Invest in creating time, space, and structure for internal networking, both formal and informal. Building stronger, more varied connections between employees will lead to a stronger organization, ready to flex with the new challenges each day brings.