The Key to Building a Better Network? Lunch.

The benefits of networking are many: inspiration, camaraderie, new skills, new relationships, and just plain fun. But networking itself is hard to invest in. Here’s how one engineer cracked the code on building great connections with colleagues.

by Ryan N Johnson, Software Engineer

I work at a startup with a headcount of 100+ people. Every week, I schedule 3–4 one-on-one lunches with different co-workers from all corners of our company. Some people are new, but there are also a lot of people I eat with every few weeks or months. Lunches last for about an hour each, and the result is that I’m surrounded by people I enjoy and value for more than just their contributions to our business.

I’ve always been surrounded by great people at my company, but I didn’t always dedicate time to get to know each of them individually. By using Donut, I learned how open my colleagues were to meet for lunch and how easy it was to build one on one meetings with new teammates into my schedule.

We’ve grown a lot as an organization since I was originally hired. When we had 20 people in the company, we were all able to fit at a single lunch table together but, as we grew to 40 and 50 people, eating lunch started to spread out across multiple tables and spaces. There were people around who I didn’t get a chance to know as well, and there wasn’t yet a precedence for how I might get to know them better.

Getting matched on Donut was the perfect icebreaker for scheduling that first one-on-one lunch. We’d both opted into Donut voluntarily, so I knew the other person wanted to take the same leap I did.

I learned so much about my first match when we met. It turned out we had a lot more in common than I’d initially thought, and I never would have known that if we hadn’t spent one-on-one time together. Group lunches could be a lot of fun, and one-on-one lunches could be just as much fun.

Since then, I’ve been scheduling lunch with my co-workers as often as possible. We’ll find a restaurant nearby or, if lunch is being catered, we’ll grab dishes and find a corner of the office where we can sit together and chat. There are some people that I go on walks with, and there are others where we’re happy to meet as a group of three. While I often suggest one-on-one lunches, what’s important is that we have space to be together for a while.

“As we’ve grown, the office hasn’t felt any less familiar to me, even as we grow to a headcount of greater than 100.”

It turns out that one-on-one meetings like this are a common thing in the business world. A few years ago, I was a guest at a number of Business Network International (BNI) meetings. BNI is a networking organization where members meet weekly to discuss business and support each other’s businesses by sharing referrals. As part of getting to know professionals in their area, members regularly scheduled meetings at coffee shops and diners together.

These BNI coffee and lunch dates were a lot of fun. I met with lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, interior designers, insurance agents, real estate agents, and more. All these people had very different areas of expertise, and that was a good thing. We learned a lot from each other, talking about the strengths and challenges of our businesses, but we also talked about family, experiences, ambitions, you name it. We got to know each other as people and built relationships that extended beyond just our businesses. We had fun together.

Lunch with my co-workers has been no different. I meet with people on my team, as well as those from other departments. I’m constantly hearing about new backgrounds, perspectives, aspirations, and struggles from each person I spend time with. We learn from each other. We challenge each other. Every meeting inspires and changes me in some way.

What I’ve also found is that people are generally willing to spend lunch time with me when I suggest it. If I hit it off with a new employee after being introduced for the first time, I’ll immediately schedule a lunch with them. If I bump into someone I haven’t seen in a while in another part of the office, I’ll take out my phone and get the meeting on our calendars as soon as I can. It’s become my preferred way to spend time with people in the office.

I do it because I love it. I’m already surrounded by great people, and I’m thankful for the chance to get to know them better. As we’ve grown, the office hasn’t felt any less familiar to me, even as we grow to a headcount of greater than 100. For me, that’s worth it, and hopefully I’m able to make others feel the same way.

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