How to Encourage Networking That Boosts Company Culture

Social hours and mixer-style events aren't the only ways for employees to connect beyond work meetings. The best conversations -- and internal relationships -- grow from a range of different interactions.

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By Gary Beckstrand

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Networking is the avenue by which personality and rapport soften professional boundaries. It allows employees to seek and gain career advice, circulate and formulate ideas, become friends beyond the boardroom and truly learn from one another. Both internal and external networking are essential for career development and self-fulfillment. But it's internal networking, in particular, that can help an organization create a closely knit culture of employees even if they don't necessarily work together every day.

Networking also is vital to help employees become their best selves and perform their best work. According to recent studies by the likes of Microsoft, social networking even can even help boost productivity. However, not all employee demographics believe they have the opportunity to network as much as others within their company.

Related: 7 Ways to Better Networking

Recently, our team at O.C. Tanner conducted a study of 3,488 employees around the world to search for key drivers of great work within the workplace. The previously unreleased data revealed women tend to feel less comfortable with various aspects of office networking than do their male coworkers. These discrepancies highlight an opportunity for companies to promote more inclusive environments that emphasize opportunities for all employees to connect.

The study shows there's room for organizations to better understand the barriers different groups face in maximizing their value at work and how to overcome those obstacles. This includes promoting a work culture in which everyone feels comfortable interacting with colleagues outside of their regular meetings.

Women and networking.

According to our data, women do not associate with colleagues beyond their own teams as much as men do. This is particularly true in terms of seeking advice on their work. When asked if they've expanded their network of contacts to have a sounding board regarding their work, 66 percent of men and 55 percent of women agreed. Additionally, 64 percent of men said they consult with people they wouldn't normally talk to, while 54 percent of women said they do. Men were also 11 percentage points more likely to reach out to past contacts who weren't part of their current work group (62 percent of men compared to 51 percent of women).

Fostering a company culture that promotes cross-departmental networking is a great way to help women feel more comfortable networking. These efforts ultimately can empower them to be more highly engaged and produce better work.

Networking often is perceived differently between men and women. For many female professionals, maintaining work-life balance is a top priority and a real necessity. They are busy in their jobs and need to go home to their families once the work day is over. As a result, happy hours, company dinners and other "traditional" forms of networking may not work for their lifestyle or be something they can commit to.

Related: 3 Ways to Have a Bigger Impact in Your Personal and Professional Life

In-office networking.

To combat this perception of networking versus family time, companies can encourage employees to incorporate networking within the typical workday. The C-suite can support longer lunch breaks to enable restaurant get-togethers, subsidize mid-afternoon coffee outings or select an open floor plan and welcome the more abundant chit-chat that ensues. Team managers could increase the opportunity for interactions through daily checkups and more frequent, shorter one-on-ones.

Networking through technology.

While face-to-face interactions are best for intra-networking, organizations also can promote technology as a way to increase frequency of interactions among employees. As organizations grow and open new offices, leadership could encourage more phone calls and video chats. And while some reports show women tend to be better at social networking on sites such as Facebook, there still are opportunities for growth on LinkedIn and other professional networking platforms.

Companies shouldn't deem social-media use as a form of distraction and ban it from the office. Rather, businesses can realize the medium is a powerful means by which employees learn about and communicate with one another. After all, social media is the new water cooler.

Related: 25 Tips for Having Meaningful Relationships

Supporting workers as they share their voices.

Confidence in the workplace is, unfortunately, highly skewed toward men. Men often are socialized to overestimate and over-report their potential and subsequent achievements, while women tend to apologize and downplay their role in a project's success. It's crucial to create an environment in which all parties -- especially female employees -- are encouraged to speak up, give advice and take full ownership of their accomplishments.

Executives should train managers to regularly seek input from all team members. This promotes a company in which diverse perspectives and opinions are heard equally. Requesting feedback from all individuals in team meetings is one specific strategy. If some employees seem unconvinced, leaders should talk with them privately to let them know their opinions are valued and they shouldn't hesitate to share. Managers might ask for input by saying something along the lines of, "I'm thinking about ______ and thought you would be able to help me," or "I'm stuck and wondered if you could help me think this through."

The key here is keeping the discussion from becoming a competition. There's no need for one-upping the suggestions that came before. Leaders show employees they are heard and valued by creating a culture that invites everyone to contribute ideas in a non-competitive environment. In that atmosphere, employees have the freedom to own their ideas and performance.

Related: How Successful Leaders Communicate With Their Teams

Including these and other strategies can lead to a workplace that enables increased engagement. What's more, increasing networking opportunities during work hours and leveraging the power of technology could help female professionals feel comfortable reaching beyond their normal sphere of coworkers. As they get to know their colleagues on a deeper professional and personal level, they will feel more involved in the company culture. That supportive environment can help them be ready to produce their best work -- which, in turn, benefits the entire organization.

Gary Beckstrand

Vice President at O.C. Tanner

Gary Beckstrand is a vice president at O.C. Tanner, the world’s leading employee recognition company. There, he helps oversee the O.C. Tanner Institute, a global forum that researches and shares insights to help organizations inspire and appreciate great work. He has consulted with numerous Fortune 100 companies to assess recognition cultures, develop strategic solutions and measure results.

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