Working in a digital world can be lonely. When so much of your daily work is virtual, it’s easy to miss out on the connection that comes with face-to-face collaboration.
I’ve been working from my home office - first as an ecommerce business owner, now as a freelance writer - for about eight years, and I have to say: It can be a special kind of isolating. Most of the time, I don’t ever see my client’s faces or know what their voices sound like, since we usually communicate over email.
And most days, that’s fine. Working from home has its perks. But the longer I work like this, the more I realize: Sometimes, having people around is nice.
It’s nice to have someone to chat with, to bounce ideas off of, to vent to on a bad day, and to celebrate with on a good day.
Plus, social skills are truly a skill. If you don’t practice ‘em, they get rusty. When you don’t experience real, human interactions on a regular basis, you might find that it gets harder to make small talk. It can create some very awkward conversations, trust me. Been there.
There’s good news, though: Overcoming the loneliness and isolation that accompanies owning an online business is possible. Even while living in a rural area and working online, here’s how I’ve learned to stay connected.
Treat Social Media Like Your Office Watercooler
For me, social media is basically my office watercooler. It’s easier than ever for you to stay connected to a network of people during the day, even if you’re working alone or from a home office.
I use Twitter the most. I’ll work in short sprints of 20-30 minutes, and during my breaks, I pop over to Twitter to share what I’m working on or to chat with other people. If Twitter isn’t your thing, you could do something similar on any other social platform, even a forum or message board.
No matter where you choose to chat, there’s a secret to making this a useful way to spend your time: you have to participate.
So many people have accounts on different social platforms, but they just lurk in the shadows and rarely chime in. They overthink posting or commenting, so they end up consuming a lot of content, but never adding to the conversation.
Don’t be the lurker. Participate, connect with people you want to talk to there, and be open to sharing. In my experience, it’s a pretty simple and easy way to make new friends and let people get an inside look at your daily life as an online business owner, too.
Have Virtual Coffee Dates
Virtual coffee dates are one of my favorite ways to stay connected without ever leaving my home office. By scheduling 30-45 minute Skype chats with people I want to get to know better, I get to regularly interact with people I’ve met online and they get to know me, too.
There’s no real agenda for these calls - it’s literally just like meeting for coffee. We talk about what we’re working on right now, what’s going well, what sucks, and any other specific questions we might have for each other. If I find someone that this works well with, we’ll sometimes make it a standing date each week for more regular check-ins.
I try to be deliberate about scheduling 1-3 of these calls each month - if I don’t, I’ll fill that time with some other activity. I have to make being more sociable a priority and schedule it on my calendar, even though that seems bizarre.
If you’ve never done a virtual coffee date before, here are few things to keep in mind when you’re preparing for your first call:
- Be a good listener and be open to sharing
- Have a few questions prepared so there’s no awkward lag in conversation
- Make sure your internet connection is reliable so the call goes smoothly
- Have pen and paper handy to jot down any good recommendations or tips
The thing to remember: These calls are not a sales opportunity. Don’t go in thinking you’re going to find a new referral source or to make a sales pitch. That’s not the point. The point is to connect with like-minded people who “get” you and the work you do. Anything else that comes as a result of these chats is just an extra perk.
Host Your Own Meetups
Sometimes, you have to create your own space to meet with like-minded professionals and makers - especially if you live outside a major city, like me. There are no nearby meetups or co-working spaces where I live.
Even if it’s a small gathering for lunch, a book club, or an evening game night, bringing people together is a chance to build deeper connections with others (and to get out of the house).
Other online business owners have figured this out, too. Allie Lehman of The Wonder Jam teaches classes, hosts art events, and invites yoga classes to use her company’s space. As a side effect of those efforts, she’s creating more opportunities to share who she is and what she does. Win-win.
If you can’t find enough local people for an in-person gathering, consider organizing an online meetup via Google Hangouts. This was a good option for me, and now I meet with a group of seven female marketers for a video call once per month.
Schedule a Co-working Retreat
Most online business owners have that one internet friend they talk to more than anyone else. They’re the go-to for questions, troubleshooting, celebrating - you name it.
But so often, those people never take the time to meet up in real life. That’s a shame, because traveling to meet up with a fellow business owner for a few days helps you get inspired in a new space with fresh scenery.
I have a person like that in my life - her name is Emma. She and I met up in Austin, Texas last year to go to a conference and a co-working retreat. We rented an Airbnb and brainstormed new ideas for our businesses, put together a plan for a future retreat, and explored the area in our downtime. And we found that working together in person for deepened our bond more than any Skype call could’ve.
When we both went back to our daily work after this meet-up, we felt more inspired, excited, and had clear goals to work toward in the coming months.
Find Online Communities of Like-Minded People
Thanks to the internet, there are countless groups of like-minded people you can find, join, and participate in. The secret is finding your way to the right ones.
I regularly use Facebook groups, Slack channels, and forums like Reddit to connect with fellow freelancers and writers. Being a part of these groups makes me feel a little bit less alone. Aside from being a great source of community, these groups can be used as a sounding board, places to get advice and feedback, and to learn from others. I also try to give more than I take by sharing advice and answering questions whenever I can, because it’s important to give more than you take.
If you’re not sure where to start looking for these, ask your existing connections what groups they’ve joined and try to look for niche-specific groups. It’s OK to join several and test the waters before deciding which ones are the best use of your time and energy.
Make an Effort
Moving forward, remember that you have to be deliberate about staying connected when you work online - no one will do it for you.
Participate in groups, find new ways to link up with people you want to get to know better, and sometimes take the lead on putting together meetings. If you’re introverted, that can be difficult, but in my experience it’s very much worthwhile. These efforts can result in new friendships, and even new business opportunities (though that shouldn’t be your primary goal).
Developing and maintaining a few high-quality relationships, will keep your from turning into a hermit or resenting your internet-based business. Go ahead and give it a try.
Kaleigh Moore is a freelance writer specializing in ecommerce and software. She also writes for publications like Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur, and HuffPost.