When lockdowns began last year much of the office workforce began the steep learning curve of Zoom etiquette, bedroom backdrops and effective working-from-home habits.
Those who had already finely tuned these skills as freelancers, entrepreneurs, creatives and consultants working at home might have felt smug. Until the isolation kicked in. While setting up shop at the shared kitchen table with home-schoolers can be fraught with friction, company colleagues have the solidarity to lean on, laugh with, and moan to each other as most companies are ensuring “check-in” connections are made on a social level.
But those experiencing the double whammy of working from home and working for themselves don’t have the same virtual-water-cooler opportunities. Establishing external connections has been critical, be those professional, social, community or subject-specific.
There is no one checking in with you when you work for yourself, and so having external connections has been essential
"There is no one checking in with you when you work for yourself, and so having external connections has been essential," says Geraldine Lyons, a coach and founder of Breaking Beyond. "I've worked from home for several years, but the networks I built to connect with people going through the same experiences as me have become much more meaningful since the lockdowns began, reminding me I'm not alone in experiencing this isolation."
Pauline Logan runs the Women in Business Network on behalf of the Local Enterprise Office Dublin City, or LEO, and has seen a marked demand for these connections.
“As soon as the first lockdown began I encouraged members to stay in contact. The feedback was immediately apparent that they wanted to maintain the connection even though we couldn’t meet in person.
“As demand increased I quickly realised there was need for more than the original one event a month, so I moved to one Zoom webinar a week as LEO moved all its services online. But there was still demand for more contact, so I also created frequent Zoom coffee mornings. As requests came in for webinar topics, I realised there was a demand not just for the usual business subjects but also for how to manage mental health, isolation and motivation. I went from arranging 11 events a year to 38 in nine months.”
Membership of the national LEO networks has increased across the board, with the Women in Business Network expanding by 25 per cent from 120 to a record of 154 members and rising.
Some people are completely on their own, while others have businesses that are on hold, so they need to keep connected to something that reminds them they are part of a bigger world
“Because of the need to connect, I’ve also introduced break-out rooms at the end of each webinar, so that members can share experiences and questions with peers. Some people are completely on their own, while others have businesses that are on hold, so they need to keep connected to something that reminds them they are part of that bigger world.”
External connection points don’t have to be work-related, and can include community, niche, sports or hobby, and include formal membership networks, FB groups, exercise classes and parenting platforms.
Hanna McDonnell is Finnish, and living in Dundalk. Feeling isolated last year, she reached out to new groups.
"I've no family in Ireland apart from my husband and kids, and haven't seen my own family since November 2019. So under lockdown I joined some FB groups of Finnish people in Ireland and a cooking group and it's been incredible. I've actually made a couple of friends that I would never have met outside of this Covid experience."
She also joined the Women Inspired Network, or WIN, as although she was working for a UK company it did not provide any structured check-ins.
“I was one of two doing their marketing in Ireland. When lockdown started the colleagues I did have were focused on the UK experience, so I felt quite isolated sitting alone working in my box room all day.
“Once I joined WIN I felt I was connecting with people who were in the same situation as me. It was so important that I could hear the voices of others out there like me.”
Hanna then took redundancy in December, and is launching her own marketing business.
To know I can reach out in the group when I'm struggling with something – be that a business issue or just the workingfrom home situation – and know I'll get an answer is amazing
“To know I can reach out in the group when I’m struggling with something – be that a business issue or just the working-from-home situation – and know I’ll get an answer is amazing. At first I just listened and read messages, but when I did post a question I got such supportive replies, with someone even reaching out on a private message to offer help, it inspired me to now be more active and reassure and help others. It’s a community.”
The founder of that network, Sam Kelly, has seen a clear shift in both her membership numbers and the level of connection her members are seeking since the lockdowns began.
“I started WIN in 2016 because I felt lonely WFH, and I thought I can’t be the only woman reaching a global network of customers but sitting in a box room on my own.
“I got the inspiration from the programme that got me sober 13 years ago. The central premise was you are no longer alone. It worked for giving up alcohol so I assumed it would work for working alone. I always say surround yourself with like-minded people and anything is possible.”
Since lockdowns began membership of WIN has gone up by nearly 30 per cent to more than 430 members globally, with Kelly having to increase the monthly online coffee meet-ups to weekly because of demand.
“The members FB group also requires much more time from me because I can see people hurting and they’re sharing their stories. It’s not all about business, but issues of working from home, home-schooling and the pressures of it all. It’s a safe space for people to share and see others are in the same boat.
“I don’t just have entrepreneurs, but women who work for companies that are either in a male-dominated space and they need the camaraderie of female professionals, or the company isn’t providing any social support.”
I'm a firm believer we have more at our disposal than we give our communities credit for. Rather than focus on what isn't here, it's important to find out what is here right now. The thing is to reach out
For many who work for themselves, external meetings would have lessened the impact of working at home.
“I used to be constantly out and about, meeting clients face to face or in groups, so making regular external connections was a conscious decision knowing I was going to be here on my own,” says Geraldine Lyons.
"I'm part of a business mastermind which connects live weekly, but also every day through a FB group. I also have had great support from the Limerick and Claire Education and Training Board, with person-to-person check ins. It's lovely to see the creativity in these groups, and how everyone is supporting each other. I've really noticed that shared vulnerability which has allowed me to ask questions and seek support."
There are plenty of local, community and business networks across the country, creating connecting environments for those working alone.
“I’m a firm believer we have more at our disposal than we give our communities credit for,” say Lyons. “Rather than focus on what isn’t here, it’s important to find out what is here right now. The thing is to reach out.”