What’s the most common piece of advice you’ve ever gotten about advancing your career? Odds are it’s “network, network, network.”
But there’s more than one type of networking
There are two types of networking:
- External networking - the process of reaching out to peers and leaders outside of your organization to build connections within and outside of your industry, to knowledge-share, and to gain expertise.
- Internal networking - the process of reaching out to known and unknown coworkers inside of your organization to collaborate, find mentors & advocates, and upskill/reskill.
So much advice revolves around networking outside of your organization, and rarely do we specifically speak about internal networking, however, that’s a mistake. The creation of internal networks holds countless benefits for individual employees as well as your organization as a whole.
The ins and outs of internal networking
Let’s dig into internal networking a bit further. We’ll cover the following topics:
- The benefits of an internal network (and why it’s even more important in a remote world)
- How to encourage internal networking
- Best internal networking tips and tactics
- Tools to enable internal networking
Top 3 benefits of an internal network
The crux of internal networking is the creation of internal networks. Encouraging and cultivating internal networks in your organization is vital to create the responsive, agile teams your organization needs to thrive and react to sudden changes in the marketplace. [Related article: How to Build Powerful Project Teams Using Agile Team Structure] But, as with anything in your organization, letting a process revert to the default is a recipe for disaster. You must invest in and create structure for (formal and informal) internal networks.
The top benefits of strong internal connection include:
- Increased employee engagement
According to research from SHRM, 41% of employees consider career advancement opportunities as a very important factor that affects their job satisfaction and engagement. By equipping your people with the structure and processes needed to cultivate their own internal network of peers, mentors, and potential advocates for their next promotion or career step, you indicate to them that career advancement and growth is possible at your organization.
- Improved talent retention
Employees who are not connected to people at work are also more likely to not be connected to the organization and its purpose as a whole. Internal networks are a crucial piece to maintaining connection, even more so in a remote workforce. As many workers are stuck behind screens, speaking to the same five people on calls, connectivity takes a hit. In fact, 47% of remote workers surveyed by Slack report that their sense of belonging and connection suffers at home. Connection plays a huge part in retaining talent that is engaged and empowered in your organization.
- Streamlined knowledge sharing
Did you know that 20% of the workweek is spent looking for internal information or asking colleagues for help and answers?
If each employee takes 8 hours a week to look for information, it’s vital that organizations create a culture that fosters knowledge sharing. Knowledge sharing is all about employees collecting and communicating their knowledge to each other so that they can work productively and efficiently.
And knowledge transfer is integral to one – retaining institutional knowledge and two – promoting a transparent work environment. When knowledge sharing is baked into your company, learning and collaboration become natural. Employees are more equipped to tap into the knowledge they need and to solve problems efficiently.
How to encourage internal networking
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 starting on 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. In a remote world, it’s even more important to be intentional about this process.
Here are a few ways to create structured methods for people to meet their new coworkers at virtual orientation:
- Plan new hires’ first call(s) to include people across all teams and utilize breakout rooms to create smaller, cross-departmental groups.
- Get creative with icebreaker questions so that your new employees will be able to quickly build new connections.
- Organize a virtual lunch and assign a group leader who can join new hires to facilitate conversation.
- Choose good gifts for your employees like a gift card to a local coffee shop and organize randomized virtual coffee chats via tools like Slack’s Donut feature.
- 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. Invest and create structure around internal connection building with programs such as:
- Recurring lunch and learns between teams to go in depth about a business area. Pro tip: ask colleagues before hand what pressing questions they have and answer them during the session!
- Collaborative knowledge-sharing channels. In whatever tool you use – Slack, Teams, etc. – create a cross-departmental channel where employees can network, share resources, and exchange insights. At Sift, we use a channel called #inspiration to do just that.
- Connect new hires to employee resource groups. These groups are often cross-departmental and unified along a common identity and allow for greater connection beyond departments.
Invest in mentorship programs
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 that many organizations don’t spend enough time on onboarding, in fact many organizations only spend one week on onboarding! Creating this networking structure extends the best parts of onboarding in a meaningful way.
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.
Best internal networking tips and tricks
For employees, growing and leveraging their internal networks opens up vast opportunities to gain insights into new industries and problems, advance their careers, and even connect to future jobs. So, equip your people with some best practices around internal networking, so that they can make the best out of their connections. Here are a few tips that you can share with a new hire on their very first day and encourage on the daily to tenured employees:
- Search for colleagues who you want to connect with and send them an outreach email with a specific ask, exactly how you would when you’re networking externally. Here are some great email templates to use.
- Schedule informational interviews with leadership to learn more about their roles, make a connection, and set a career path for yourself.
- Let your team know from Day 1 what your interests are. Whether it’s data analytics, podcasting, or rock climbing, make your interests visible so that people know what they can reach out to you for.
- Commit to taking trainings and courses to upskill yourself and share your learnings with others. Offer to host a masterclass and invite people from all departments. Here are some great tips on how to host effective, virtual lunch and learns.
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.
Platforms to enable internal networking
So, you have a strategy in place and some tactics to implement, however, do you have the technology needed to equip your people with the ability to build connection?
Whatever solution you leverage, whether it’s a collaboration tool or a company intranet, be sure to evaluate if it equips your people to find and discover one another. This calls for two considerations. One, does the tool allow people to share information about themselves? Their interests, skills, experience, and more? And two, does the tool make this information searchable and does it allow people to easily reach out and connect?
With software like Sift, the ability to find and discover is made easy. Searchable employee profiles paired with a comprehensive org chart allow employees to share information about themselves – their skills, interests, and experience – and to easily search for and connect with their coworkers. Watch the video below to learn about how one HR professional leverages the internal network enabled by Sift to recruit talent and build community at her organization.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2019, and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness in April 2021.