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.
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.
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.
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.