How To Create Meaningful Work Relationships While Working From Home

Telecommuting saves time and money, but it’s a lot harder to have important interactions over an instant message. Luckily, there are a few simple solutions.

With more and more of our professional and social lives moving online, telecommuting is fast becoming the rule rather than the exception in the workplace. Earlier this year, Marissa Mayer took a lot of heat for banning Yahoo’s employees from working remotely, and now other companies are beginning to follow suit. Is this some sort of fascist, oppressive backlash against a more modern and progressive way of doing business? I dare to say that Mayer was onto something—face time helps us build far more meaningful relationships than chats and phone calls. But there are ways to create meaningful, professional relationships when space and time get in the way.

Dunbar’s Number

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, developed the concept of the "Dunbar’s number", a theoretical limit on the size of the social network that the average human can maintain. His work demonstrates that in primates (i.e. monkeys, apes, and yes, humans) the larger the brain, the bigger the social network. Even in humans, that number is surprisingly small: just 150.

Do some digging, and you’ll notice that the number 150 shows up in a lot of human social networks. It’s the standard size of an Ancient Roman military unit, the average size of a hunter-gatherer group, the average number of friends people have on Facebook, and it’s precisely the reason why social network Path has a friends limit of 150.

Virtual networks are designed to allow our limited cognitive and emotional resources to process more interactions by making them easier, quicker, and more global. While there is more opportunity than ever before to expand our network of contacts around the world, evolutionary psychology and anthropology tell us that to bring in new people, we have to sacrifice our relationships with existing ones.

Not only are we limited to around 150 people in our network, the number with whom we can have a truly close relationship is astonishingly small—just five people, usually three family members and two friends. A romantic partner—especially a new relationship—counts for twice the amount of social-cognitive processing, leaving us with even less capacity for forming new close relationships.

The implications for workplace friendships are clear: smaller teams make for closer relationships and a greater understanding of our colleagues. For large companies, individual departments and sub-departments will likely form their own partially independent social networks. After all, we’re still hunter-gatherers at heart. These findings have implications for informing policy on a wide range of business practices, from marketing to office design.

Making Virtual Work Relationships More Personal

This is all well and good, but as we have seen, Dunbar’s number seems to apply to virtual networks too. Take a look at the hundreds of connections you have on LinkedIn. How many of them would count as part of a social (as opposed to a business) network? And what about the increasing tendency for people to work remotely, via the internet? Are virtual interactions as effective for developing good working relationships as "real" ones?

The research of Dunbar and his colleagues indicates that virtual relationships may require more effort, patience, and TLC than in-person ones to make them work. In short, emails and text messages are simply not as satisfying to most humans as a chat over coffee.

This San Francisco office was specifically designed to encourage people to work from home. Read more here.

Just like other primates, humans like to engage in grooming as a form of social bonding. Our methods of grooming are a little more sophisticated than picking fleas out of each other’s hair and typically involve hugs, handshakes, smiles, and laughter. Shared humor may be a crucial way in which larger-than-optimal social networks keep it together in the absence of regular physical contact—so if you’re working remotely or in a large team with little personal contact, keep the jokes coming. Also, I recommend a mandatory high-five-an-employee day for all bosses (unless your boss is David Brent from The Office, in which case, I probably wouldn’t blame you.)

So with all our amazing high tech options for virtual conferencing these days, what does research suggest is best—video calls, text-based approaches (such as email or IM), or a good old-fashioned phone call? According to Dunbar’s fascinating keynote lecture at this year’s British Psychological Society annual conference, none of them are likely to be as satisfying or influential as an in-person meeting.

Of the virtual options, video conferencing emerged as the most effective for emotionally impactful, meaningful interactions, probably because video conferencing—unlike text or audio-only media—allows us to process non-verbal communication such as facial expression and gestures. However, for the virtual interactions as well as the in-person ones, laughter, whether real or symbolic, predicted how much happiness resulted from the meeting.

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  • Rushabh Rambhia

    This is BS. There is not a single useful tip on "creating meaningful relationships" in this article. I would have expected to see some tips that could help with effective communication, trust building etc. - things that are difficult to achieve for a telecommuter. But nothing here - just someone else's research about completely irrelevant stuff - that doesnt really matter to people working from home.

  • Donal O'Conghaile

    The title of this article is very misleading. It promises real and simple solutions, but just says that it's better to have face-to-face time. "How to" articles get clicks, but don't use it as a trick without offering value. This isn't the first time Fast Company has done this.

  • bitbo44

    Agree with Cari. Very misleading title. Should have been something like "We humans can only handle small working teams" or "Research shows..." Not one "simple" solution here.

  • Crystal Richard

    What about adopting an employee feedback/happiness platform? For example, 15Five.com. Yes, you can't see your team or team leaders but that shouldn't keep you from sharing your wins, expressing concerns/challenges and just letting them know how you're feeling at work. We use it at our agency and both our in-house and remote workers look forward to filling out new, unique, contextual questions each week.

  • Tony Nguyen

    Well, another creative post. In my opinion, LinkedIn is still my favorite social network to make relationship online, especially when we work from home. Online is all about connection, so we can't ignore it.  Thanks for great job, Kerry.

  • Cari Turley

    That's it? Video conferencing? This doesn't really tell me how to create meaningful relationships from home--I was expecting more advice based on your title. This is a legitimate concern, giving the increase in telecommuting and focus on Results-Only Work Environment, but I don't have any more information than I did before.

  • BridgeDistance

    Developing that human connection across technology is a significant challenge.  It comes up frequently for us, as our most interactions are virtual.  

    We have spent a great deal of time paying attention to communicating effectively and getting to know each other with reduced face to face time.

    I'm not sure we fully considered the impact of laughing, and we laugh a lot!  I have noticed that since we began utilizing spontaneous video chats / hang-outs, our connection has deepened, and I wonder how much of that is because "seeing" each other has resulted in more humor.

    Thank you for giving me a new angle on a topic that is of considerable importance to me and my firm.

    Mary Lou