Anyone who has worked from home for a significant amount of time knows that it tends to make you…well, rusty with your social skills. It's perfectly natural when you spend more working hours face-to-screen than face-to-face. Then suddenly, for one reason or another, you find yourself in need of professional networking. Yikes. When you work from home, the biggest challenge to networking is that you have less support. If you're in an office, you can attend conferences and events with people you already see every day, and attendance is probably funded and officially encouraged, if not required. From an office, you have a built-in safety net. Depending on your work-from-home situation, you might not have any outside support at your disposal. If that's the case, you have to create your own networking opportunities. It adds an additional layer of difficulty to a process that is already uncomfortable for many people. There is no magic bullet, but you'll find some road-tested advice from an actual work-from-home professional below.
1. Find the right networking opportunities for you.
That doesn't mean you should be picky about how to find networking opportunities. In fact, the less professional support you have, the more approaches you'll have to try. Know what you're trying to accomplish with networking and choose your opportunities with that goal in mind. Are you just looking to raise your profile in general? Are you job hunting? Looking for a mentor? Trying to find a niche that appeals to you? Then start looking for opportunities:
- Start with your existing network. Touch base with your existing friends and family – first more personally, then expand out through social media. Be specific about what you're trying to accomplish and see if they know any person / organization / event that can help you get there.
- Go to conferences. Shorter networking events tend to be full of people who are job-hunting, but conferences are a commitment, so you'll find more established professionals. Plus, you'll learn something new!
- Keep an eye out for local events. Career fairs, lectures, your friend's office party. If you belong to a professional organization, make use of it. Go to alumni events. Look on Meetup and check nearby colleges for events that are open to the public. Most cities also have event calendars you can comb.
- Focus on networking face-to-face, but work your digital resources, too. Use LinkedIn to secure a relationship with the people you met face-to-face, and make online connections with other social media. Look for online professional forums where you can discuss issues and get advice. Just be professional. Don't say anything you wouldn't face to face.
As you try different types of events, pay attention to what works and what doesn't – if you don't get anything productive out of a particular forum, don't keep banging your head against that wall. Try something different.
2. Stage yourself ahead of time.
Real estate agents stage houses to make the right impression on buyers for a reason. You should stage yourself, too. This isn't about appearance. That matters, but honestly, mental staging is both harder and more important, especially if your social skills have atrophied. Think about how you want to present who you are. How will you describe what you do, and where you are in your career? What are you good at? What do you love? Where are you going? Most importantly, how do you explain that without it sounding like an elevator pitch? If you feel insecure about anything that's likely to come up while networking, find the right "spin" ahead of time. You want to sound confident and avoid putting yourself down. This is huge if your purpose is searching for employment, which we all know can be discouraging.
3. Take the pressure off, but don't forget why you're there.
For many people, the biggest mental block to networking is the pressure of having to sell themselves. It's an artificial interaction. That's why you're better off approaching things in a whole different way. Walk into a networking event with the goal of getting to know other people. You've already prepared what you'll say when conversation turns to you, but don't lead with it. Be curious about the other humans in the room. Ask questions. Find out what they do and why they do it, and like panning for gold, you might eventually find a nugget worth cashing in. Not only will you feel more comfortable with this approach, the people you're approaching will, too. Everyone appreciates it when you show a genuine interest in their lives. Let opportunities to share your story come up organically. You can pepper in connections between your experience and theirs, and most people will turn the questioning back around to you. Do remember that you're there for a purpose, and make sure you're spending your time wisely. This means:
- Don't be a wallflower, no matter how tempting it is. If you're shy about approaching people cold, sticking with someone who has no shame about it can be a huge advantage. Just make sure you're talking to new people too, not just your buddy.
- Go easy on the food and drink. It's easy to lean on those props if you're nervous, but a full mouth and full hands aren't conducive to a meet and greet. Stick with something you can carry one-handed, don't show up hungry, and of course, limit your alcohol intake.
- Don't get stuck. You want to try to meet as many people as you productively can, so if you're talking to someone who is a clear dead end (or is only interested in talking about themselves), politely move on. With very few exceptions, you shouldn't spend more than 10 minutes with anyone, even if they seem interesting or useful.
If you feel awkward at first, don't be discouraged. Networking is a skill like any other, and it takes practice. Just don't give up. Every event that you go to will make the process easier and more effective.