There’s no need to fake your way through awkward interactions if you focus on the opportunities you already have

No question about it: The need to “network” leaves most of us cold. The gripping and grinning, the fake-hearty small talk — all for the sake of a hoped-for introduction or lead that may never come. A necessary evil, right? But what if I told you that it doesn’t have to be this way — and that the most important network you build is the one you already have?

Where generic networking brings to mind a faceless mass of people, connecting with people at your company happens for all the right reasons. You’re already collaborating with your team and other teams and randomly meeting other potential colleagues every day. You’re friendly with some execs, or you’re already one yourself, and so have the chance to tackle problems together. All good! I’m a fan of making lots of connections with all kinds, and all levels, of coworkers. These are the people who may become your most valuable contacts. As career writer Abby Wolfe reminds us, “When you open the door to that guy from the IT department, you also open the door to people he knows … by grabbing coffee with him during the workday, you’re not just learning more about his job, but you’re also expanding your own six-degrees-of-separation network.”

The people you know now (and the people they know) are the ones who can propel you toward your next gig, the next great idea, the next new thing. You share a bond by having been in the trenches together. So it’s worth taking advantage of the current connection you enjoy to broaden your network. Here are a few tactics to help you strengthen those bonds.

Become a convener

A great way to connect with people is to invite them to something: Start a cross-team happy hour so that teams can get to know what everyone does and how they can work together better. Be the person to instigate regular check-ins on deadline-driven projects. Convene that all-important postmortem to assess the project that just ended. Bring in outside guests who are, say, subject matter experts, industry observers, and so on for a lunch-and-learn session. These and similar gatherings put you in the position of seeking out people you don’t already know or strengthening your relationships with those you do. Either way, you’re developing new contacts with purpose. Bonus: You’ll be seen as someone in the know — a connector and, not coincidentally, well-connected.

Spread knowledge

Here’s a generous thing to do that has all kinds of value. When you attend workshops, conferences, or trade shows, take good notes on the event for your team or even for the whole company. Such “trip reports” are a wonderful way to share what you learned and observed. They should be useful to your busy colleagues, so aim to cover key points:

  • Is this event worth our time?
  • Who’s best suited to attend?
  • Which competitors attended and what kind of showing did they make?
  • What were the key themes?
  • Were there any interesting new products and services?
  • What was the audience like?

Such reports help to keep your colleagues informed, make you a person who’s in the know, and make it easy for you to reach out or follow up with co-workers on other teams. If you’re a good writer, great — you can show off your ability to summarize and provide critical thinking and even some humor. If your writing isn’t strong, follow a template to get your points across and have someone else read through it before you post it. Trip reports are a generous act for those who didn’t get to go and give people an opening to talk with you afterward. Don’t forget to create a place for trip reports to live on your internal site so people can find the whole collection over time.

Skip a level

Some companies make a practice of offering regular “skip level” meetings in which higher-level execs have a 1:1 with lower-level employees they wouldn’t otherwise know. In bigger companies, these are likely to be once or twice yearly meetups within a team. That’s fine, but even more valuable might be a bigger “skip” — not only levels, but across teams. It would be great for a CEO to hear from the customer service rep or for a product manager to walk a marketing VP through their work. If you’re on the lower level of that pair, take advantage of your brief time together to raise informed questions and help the exec see how your world works. If you’re the exec, these contacts are a pipeline to real-world perspectives that aren’t easy for you to get the bigger you grow.

Make coffee dates

You’ll never have a better place to approach people you don’t know and ask them to meet up for coffee than you do at your current job. A 30-minute coffee date (a first meeting should be shorter than lunch and at a less busy time of day) is a fairly painless way to get to know someone who seems interesting from another team or someone approachable from a team you’re interested in. You might want to understand how your two teams work together (or could do better at it), or maybe you have an eye on moving teams. Someone might have expertise or training you’d like to pursue yourself. It all starts with a very informal “Could we have coffee sometime so I can learn more?” Once you’ve met, be sure to thank them for the time, and stay in touch (occasional coffees, sharing articles and news of mutual interest, connecting your teams).

Have a better crisis

As companies get bigger, it gets harder to make persistent connections with people, especially when you’re not working on projects together. That’s why it’s important to keep up the habit of meeting new people in everyday moments. Then, at some point, every company faces a crisis. It might be when real-world events affect your business directly or when unanticipated consequences put your systems to the test. In these moments, it becomes a huge benefit to have colleagues across teams. Your informal connection can help to avert or shorten potential disasters or at least get to what happened more quickly.

Even the most casual office conversations can yield critical and time-sensitive knowledge. For example, let’s say a beta test has been inadvertently shared publicly (leading to user or PR blowback). Or maybe a critical team isn’t aware of an impending release (did someone forget to notify the security team?!). Or a big stakeholder didn’t get the heads up on a new partnership, threatening another deal. These are the times when it makes a huge difference to say “I know Terry in security” or “let me check with Maeve in legal” to find out what’s happening and what can be done quickly. Even for more routine situations, pinging your localization friend Kumiko about that problematic translation can stem a day of country-wide unhappiness. Your informal connections, in other words, can become lifesavers in critical moments. The fact that you have them underscores how the world works today: through the collaboration that comes from personal connections.

Remember: Literally no one needs to be beyond your reach. With a bit of effort and intention, you can deepen your sense of connection and belonging at work and prepare for any move you want to make in the future.