Reset: A ‘profound shrinkage’ of casual interactions, sabbaticals, TV during work hours

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THE VIRUS

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 19% increase from two weeks earlier, averaging about 218,000 new cases per day. December is on track to be the deadliest month in the US from the pandemic. Over 127,000 vaccine doses have been administered in the US, and Moderna’s vaccine Friday became the second approved by the FDA. London and Southeast England went into strict lockdown after the UK reported a new Covid strain that it believes is as much as 70% more transmissable. Intensive care units in Southern California hospitals have no more available beds

The business impact: About five million Americans say they can’t work because they’re sick from the virus, and another 5.2 million said they’re not working because of concerns about it. Another six million Americans are out of work because they were laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic. About eight million Americans have fallen into poverty since June, the biggest increase in a single year since the US started tracking poverty. 

FOCUS ON WHAT'S HAPPENING TO OUR NETWORKS

It’s perhaps not surprising that our personal and professional networks have shrunk in size during the pandemic. But the degree of the contraction, for men especially, is alarming. The size of our extended networks has fallen by about 17% on average during the pandemic, according to new research by Marissa King, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. In a study conducted with Balazs Kovacs, Nicholas Caplan, and Sammy Grob, she found that men’s networks shrank by close to 30%, while women’s connections were much less affected. 

This week I spoke with King about what she’s seeing, where it’s causing problems, and what we can do about it. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited lightly for space and clarity:

How has the pandemic impacted our connections to other people?

If you think about how networks work, you can imagine our relationships as a series of concentric circles. At the heart of your network are the two to five people that you're closest to, who you would turn to in a time of emergency or a crisis, you would ask for help, you would feel comfortable asking them for money. Then you can expand out upon these layers. One hundred fifty is one of the most famous numbers in these circles—Dunbar's Number, the number of people that we can actively maintain in our network and that we would have been in contact with recently. 

Where we're seeing the contraction is this outer reach of our networks. Typically this network size ranges between 600 to 900 people. It's people you've seen face-to-face in the past two to three years that you could reach out to without having to look them up online. You have their contact information, but they're really weak acquaintances.

Why this is important in the context of business is it's that layer of our network where innovation and creativity comes from. Why this contraction largely has happened is if you think about all your relationships, there's really a fixed number of them that you can maintain at any one time. 

What we know is in times of crisis, that people's networks tend to what we call 'turtle in' or face inward. If you look at other crises, whether it's post-Hurricane Katrina, or you think about price shocks within a business, this network contraction is actually really adaptive. We turn to our closest friends and colleagues. There's been research that Ethan Bernstein at Harvard did also showing that this has happened within an organization. He observed that communication among close colleagues increased 40% [during the pandemic], but it's really at the expense of this outer layer of our network. 

While it's adaptive in this short run, in the long run for businesses it poses challenges, particularly with respect to creativity, but also the likelihood of discovering mistakes. Most mistakes are discovered in these casual types of interactions that we see this profound shrinkage of.

How do you explain the gender differences in the pandemic's impact on network size?

There are two factors that seem to be in play: One is that at a very simple level men and women maintain their networks differently. Research that was done by Robin Dunbar investigated this and what he and his colleagues found is that women tend to maintain their networks through conversation. Women talk to each other, but men tend to do things together. So men, for instance, even though it may seem stereotypical, they prefer to go to the bar together. They prefer to go bowling together. They prefer to go fishing together. They don't just sit around and talk. And because of the disruption to the ability to engage in those shared activities, men's networks have been much more disrupted than women's, in that sense of maintaining ties through conversation has not been as disrupted as much. 

The other part of it is also cognitive. Women are much more accurate in recalling their networks. People in general are really, really bad at understanding what value there is in their network, estimating its size, even figuring out if their friends are friends with one another. But women tend to be much better at this than men do. Because of that, we know that during times of crisis with that tendency to 'turtle in,' women aren't as susceptible to it as men are.

Is there a specific connection between mental health and your findings about the network size?

In our work, we found that people who have five or more very close connections haven't become more lonely during the epidemic. The problem is that we know from a lot of research that most Americans don't have five close connections. That really is the goal. Now shifting to think about friends at work—there's huge benefits to having friends at work. Whether it's workplace engagement, cognitive ability, reduced likelihood of turnover, there's a lot of research showing having friends at work really helps. But the key is it's not having lots of friends at work. You really only need two or three close friends at work to get all the benefits that we just talked about.

One of the things that's been interesting for me to think about during the pandemic is a lot of companies have spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how can we create a virtual water cooler? How can we do the holiday party? Those types of connections, actually, I don't think are what we need to be focusing on. Instead we needed to be thinking about how can we nurture and support our relationships, our closest colleagues. Some of that's happening naturally for some people, but for a lot of people it's not.

What practical advice do you have for what we should do in our organizations, or our careers, based on what you're observing?

One of the best pieces of advice is to take the time to reach out to someone that you may not have spoken to in a couple of years. There's great research that was led by Daniel Levin at Rutgers. They asked executives to list 10 people you work with every day or you would turn to for advice and 10 people that you haven't spoken to in two or three years, but you think might have something to offer for your project. They asked them to reach out and contact these people—they were randomly assigned to either reach out to a current tie or an older tie. They found that when people actually reached out to contacts that they hadn't seen in a couple of years, which they call dormant ties, that the information that they got from those ties was far better than their current network.

Part of this is because weak ties have these information benefits we've talked about. But what's interesting is that the trust still exists in those relationships. Trust is actually really enduring in relationships. So you get both of these benefits—of having mutual support and new information—from reaching out to someone that you used to be close to, and you might not have spoken to in a long time. 

People are so reluctant to do this. Because there's this idea of, oh my God, that's just going to be so awkward. But there's lots of ways to do this effectively. One of the most powerful ways is to reach out to someone that was critical in your career, or a mentor, and just say, 'Hey, I'm thinking about you. I really appreciate what you did for me.' If you imagine being on the receiving end of that, especially now when people are really feeling disconnected and searching for purpose, that's incredibly rewarding. But also right now it's helpful to be reminded that asking for help is in many ways giving someone else a gift that allows them to feel a sense of mastery. It allows them to feel a sense of purpose. People want to be of service generally. So asking for help is also another way to do this really well.

You can read a transcript of our conversation, including King’s views on whether our networks will bounce back after the pandemic, the advantages of phone calls for creating connection, and how the pandemic has affected the racial, economic, and gender diversity of our networks. 

You can also preorder a copy of King’s book Social Chemistry that will be out on Jan. 5 on Bookshop.org and Amazon.

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

Fighting fatigue. Employees are struggling with pandemic fatigue and could feel it for months to come—even if recent vaccine news offers a glint of hope. Five ideas can help reenergize your organization when there are no easy answers.

WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW

A CDC panel is expected to decide today on recommendations for which groups of workers could get vaccinated next. Each state will decide who’s eligible after health-care workers and long-term care residents—but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are expected to have some sway. 

  1. As I’ve written, recent draft CDC materials suggested teachers, food store workers, police, firefighters, corrections officers, and transportation workers could be among those recommended for the phase known as 1b.

  2. Amazon is among the companies that have lobbied the CDC panel, saying that its warehouse, data center and Whole Foods grocery store staff should get priority.

  3. Meanwhile, the federal government this week issued guidelines permitting employers to require employees be vaccinated before they’re allowed to return to work.

At-home virus testing is gaining some steam. Google is now offering employees working from home free weekly testing, using a PCR nasal swab test that the workers send to a lab for analysis. It reportedly costs Google about $50 per test, well below the $100-plus many companies have paid for in-person testing.

  1. It’s unusual that a company offers free testing to employees who aren’t actually coming to a workplace. Amazon, for example, is offering to pay for weekly tests for employees in California who are on the front lines.

  2. The first over-the-counter Covid test should be available in drugstores by February. The roughly $30 test uses a nasal swab and can deliver results at home in 20 minutes.

The great corporate real-estate downsizing is underway. A Bloomberg analysis of thousands of earnings calls found that one out of every eight included commentary about savings from reducing facility space. More than 50% of companies in a separate UK survey said they planned to reduce their real estate footprint. 

  1. The cuts span industries—and even those holding on to space are aggressively negotiating lower rents. 

  2. Expectations that post-pandemic more work will be done remotely and expensive city-center locations will be less vital are helping drive the real-estate shift.

If you’re trying to hire someone, be ready to answer their questions about how long they can work remotely. Nearly all of the over 1,000 women surveyed recently by InHerSight said they wanted to work from home at least part of the time post-pandemic, while 50% said they preferred to do it full time. Other questions the survey suggested job recruits will focus on:

  1. What safety measures have you put in place to protect employees?

  2. What is your onboarding process?

  3. What specifically are you doing about diversity, equity, and inclusion?


Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

Take a sabbatical. Citigroup announced that going forward it would allow employees at any level to take 12-week sabbaticals at 25% pay, to do whatever they want. The bank will let staff buy an extra five days of vacation annually, and work pro bono for a nonprofit for four weeks at 100% pay. Research strongly suggests employees should sign up—there’s no significant career penalty for taking such leaves, and we all have better job performance when recharged.

Don’t try to coast until life returns to normal with the vaccine. Everyone’s exhausted, but just giving in to pandemic fatigue and the blurring of work and life takes a bigger toll. Now is the time to lay the groundwork for a surge in activity when things return to normal. Leaders should adopt the Lego corporate maxim: “Energize everyone, every day.” Some tactics include competitions, communication but fewer long meetings, and sharing success stories. 

Apologize properly. Say you’re sorry even if you don’t think the other person fully recognizes their role in the problem. And try not to undermine the sincerity of an apology by wrapping it in an excuse like “Sorry for my slow response to your email, but I've been busy.” 

CODA

At ski resorts, silence is truly golden. MIT students who conducted an analysis of the potential for Covid spreading in Alta, Utah, during this winter’s ski season concluded that the risk dropped dramatically if people just didn’t talk when on shuttle buses or indoors in locker rooms and bathrooms. That’s because people release dramatically more airborne droplets that can carry the virus when they’re speaking, and it increases as they raise their volume.

  1. Utah ski resorts have been expecting a surge in visitors, as cooped up Americans are drawn to activities outdoors. Park City is the top US destination for Christmas travelers this year, according to Tripit, while New York City slipped from first place to eleventh.

  2. Skiing has been associated with pandemic spread. An Austrian ski town has been linked to virus cases in at least 40 countries. But, with precautions, skiing itself is relatively safe—it’s the mingling in bars, restaurants, and chalets that’s responsible for the transmission.

  3. France, Germany, and Italy have closed ski resorts until January. So European skiers are heading to Switzerland, which despite high Covid rates, is keeping its slopes open. 

Paris was fined €90,000 for having too many women atop its city government. Mayor Anne Hidalgo filled 11 of 16 top jobs with women, running afoul of a law prohibiting more than 60% of the positions from going to one gender in any given year. The law has been amended since the hiring. Women hold 47% of senior Paris government positions. 

Ugh—television is invading the work day. Nearly 60% of remote workers have binge watched a TV show during business hours since the pandemic began, according to a Fast Company and Harris Poll survey. Nearly half of those surveyed said they’ve replaced some of their commuting time with watching television.


The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing for free by email. Have a great week!