5 Ways to Build New Alliances at Work

Workers returning to the office—or still working remotely—may have an unusual chance to find new mentors and allies who could reshape their careers.

For many, office work in the pandemic (whenever it comes) will certainly feel weird, with desks far apart, colleagues wearing masks, and human resources officials taking temperatures. But from a career perspective, this strange environment may create—oddly enough—some interesting opportunities to build new alliances.

To be sure, the right allies and mentors can make or break careers. They can offer new perspectives, support your views, and if they are high on the corporate ladder, quietly recommend you for promotions. Most of these relationships are built over many years. But COVID-19 sent millions home to work remotely, shaking up networks that had been established in the office setting over years. “Your world is changing, and you do need to build new networks,” says Nathan Blain, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader of organizational strategy and digital transformation.

How to do all this is an enormous challenge, of course, especially since some colleagues and potential mentors are still working remotely while others are in the office. But experts say these steps may help reset your networking—steps that can help both those back in the office and those still at home.

Meet people in other departments.

Most organizations, to ensure social distancing, are bringing workers back to the office in stages. For instance, some accountants will be in the office on Mondays, others on Fridays. That means many employees might not be working with their usual colleagues on the same day for several more months. It’s as good of an excuse as any to learn who else is in the office on your day—whether they are software coders or salespeople—and get to know them.

Introducing yourself to people in far-flung departments isn’t just a courtesy, either. The pandemic has upended how many companies do business. Some departments that before March might not have had anything to do with one another—digital marketing specialists and supply chain professionals, for example—may find themselves needing each other to effectively deliver on an e-commerce strategy. “If digital is 60% of our revenue now and it was 8% before the pandemic started, I’d better get to know that digital team a whole lot more,” Blain says.

Find the office influencer.

In most organizations, there is at least one person who seemingly has a sixth sense. This individual often has considerably more power than their title suggests. He or she can suss out an organization’s unwritten rules, the necessary steps to getting things done, and hidden landmines.

Experts say that with fewer people in the office, these influencers might be easier to spot. Find out who they are and reach out to them. “Share with them why you are interested in talking to them. Make them feel valued, like the subject-matter expert,” says David Ginchansky, a career coach for Korn Ferry Advance. Influencers who become allies could open you up to their own vast networks, which is often the real power behind these organizationally aware people.

Reset with your boss.

The pandemic has been difficult for managers and subordinates alike, with both groups suffering from frayed nerves, anxieties, and the blurring of work and home lives. Both sides could use the return to the office as a chance to improve the relationship. Bosses who are allies will fight for you for raises, promotions, and other work perks.

Experts say that doing good work (which in turn makes the boss look good) will be a necessary part of turning your boss into an ally, but it isn’t sufficient. Set up a regular check-in with your boss, keep them abreast of projects, and ask them for their perspective and offer your own. Building (or rebuilding) rapport and trust with a boss now will pay dividends later.

Make peace with work rivals.

The bad economic environment might create new work rivalries, so employees could use the return to the office as the time to turn old work enemies into allies. Try de-escalating a rivalry by emphasizing how you share a sense of commitment and purpose. “Be the first to open up, because no one is going to open up unless the first person is vulnerable enough to do so,” says Ginchansky.

Employees can also turn rivals into allies by offering to help those rivals without asking for or expecting anything in return. Indeed, that type of action can win over multiple allies. Experts say a colleague who helps an adversary complete a project not only helps their rival but also can win respect and appreciation from other teammates or superiors who benefitted from the project’s completion.

Find a mentor or sponsor.

Potential mentors and sponsors returning to the office might have as difficult a time finding which elevator to use as anyone else. But they can be invaluable, career-long allies who can help employees overcome a variety of professional challenges.

Mentors offer encouragement, advice, and support for both early-career employees and workers learning new roles. Sponsors can push people to take on ever-more challenging roles and become advocates for mid- or late-career employees in front of the highest levels of corporate leadership. Indeed, 65% of the women CEOs interviewed in Korn Ferry’s Women CEOs Speak study said they never thought becoming a CEO was a career option until someone else told them they could do it.

Since mentors and sponsors can potentially help on nearly everything, experts say it’s important for an employee to figure out what exactly they want support for. Someone who could be a great resource to help navigate the organizational landscape may not be the right person to ask about help with particular work projects. “Knowing your goal in a mentor is even more difficult than finding a mentor,” Ginchansky says. Do some research on potential mentors and sponsors in advance. Share what you are looking for, tell them why you feel they are the right person, and ask if they are willing to help, Ginchansky says.