Credit: Ian Christmann

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 is a transcript of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity:

How has the pandemic impacted our connections to other people?

The impact that we’ve seen to our connections post-Covid is really a contraction or a shrinking in the size of our networks. In research with my colleagues, we’ve found that our networks have shrunk by close to 17%, which translates into roughly 200 people. That’s a really extraordinary shrinkage. One of the findings that I think is particularly interesting is that’s primarily risen from men’s networks. Women’s networks during this time have hardly shrunk at all. But taking a step back, when I’m talking about networks, what are we talking about? 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 the 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. We only have so much time in the day and we have to allocate it across different types of relationships. 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%, but it’s really at the expense of this outer layer of our network.

That is 40% during the pandemic?

Yes. That was looking at communication patterns within organizations. The evidence is suggesting that there’s really been this tendency to focus in, which is adaptive because that provides increased emotional support and provides trust. In our own research, we’ve shown that it guards against loneliness. And 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.

What do you mean by discovering mistakes?

Oftentimes people think that mistakes are discovered through systematic processes. We sit down and have a meeting and we review how things are going and that’s where mistakes arise. But oftentimes mistakes are actually discovered in casual conversations because when we are building systems, even if we’re building a redundancy system to catch mistakes, we build our biases into those systems. The same happens in small groups. If we’re talking among our team that meets every day, we all have this same set of biases. A lot of times these mistakes are unearthed through conversations with people who are asking questions that challenge fundamental assumptions and are doing this from a perspective of a naive conversation. So as you describe to me how your work happens, sometimes that will surface these fundamental mistakes that otherwise wouldn’t be uncovered.

So people are strengthening their connections to their close ties, but losing the social capital of their weak acquaintances. Are the acquaintances people that they usually see in person at conferences, alumni reunions, school events, or things like that?

Exactly. It’s the type of people that you wouldn’t necessarily intentionally reach out to, or have as a part of your daily work environment. It’s like if I happened to bump into you on the street, and it reminded me that we haven’t seen each other in a while and we should catch up. Those more serendipitous interactions that are really important for fulfilling a variety of social relationships, those are the ones that have been impacted.

Are there benefits from the ‘turtling in’ with your close ties that you mentioned is happening during the pandemic?

Yes. The biggest advantage is it helps create a sense of belonging. It really allows you to draw on trust that exists in your network. Another advantage to that ‘turtling in’ is it also reduce uncertainty—we do it in part because it also feels comfortable and safe. But one of the ironies of it is that in moments, when there’s a profound shift in the environment, or there’s lots of uncertainty, we actually need to reach out for new information, but psychologically we feel much safer looking inward. It’s a paradoxical effect. In some ways it helps us at a personal level with the sense of support and belonging, but it’s a maladaptive approach from an organizational perspective.

Because we need more information from weaker acquaintances to make better decisions?

Yes. Going back to why we think that weak ties really matter—if we go back three decades, there was research that was done by Mark Granovetter. In particular, he was looking at how people get a job. He was repeatedly surveying people and asking them, how did you get a job? How did you find out about the job that you currently have? He would say, ‘Was it a friend?’ And people kept saying again and again, ‘No, it wasn’t a friend.’ It was an acquaintance. 

People are more likely to find a job through an acquaintance because their acquaintances have new sources of information. If we just let our social circles go without reflecting upon them, we tend to end up talking to people who look like us and think like us. The more that we have those same conversations over and over, we all increasingly start to influence one another and think alike. So without these weaker ties, we’re essentially all sitting in echo chambers. That’s why that weak tie is so important—it’s providing new sources of information that we otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to.

You said earlier that it was a source of creativity…

If we think about where creativity comes from, where innovation comes from, it almost always comes from recombination. Oftentimes we think that there’s a lone genius or someone just happens to be creative. Everything that we know from research is that innovation really comes through recombination. My favorite example of this is the printing press. The printing press radically changed our whole social world. But if you really look at it—it was profoundly disruptive, but it’s simply actually a wine press and a coin punch put together. The same is true for almost every innovation you can think of—it really comes through recombination. But because we tend to exist in our really small social world, we don’t have the opportunity to be exposed to these new ideas and new social realms to have the opportunity to put together ideas that wouldn’t normally speak to one another.

Is diversity a casualty of the weakening of extended networks during the pandemic, whether it’s the economic, racial, or gender diversity of people’s connections?

One of the things that actually gives me great hope is actually how this has played out. When we ‘turtle in’ normally you would actually see exactly what you described, that you see less diversity. You see more polarization because when people turn inward, their closest inner ties actually tend to be much less diverse than other parts of their network. We also know that our most diverse relationships happen at work. To the extent that people are drawing only on friends and family, or their closest ties, then they’re less likely to be diverse. But what’s interesting is while this has happened, the shift toward virtual communication and interacting online actually creates an opportunity for increasing diversity. There’s not a ton of work in this area, but there has been some work that’s looked, for instance, at LinkedIn and compared people’s LinkedIn networks.

Who is connecting with whom and how much gender diversity in particular, there is on that platform versus how much gender diversity there is in people’s normal work networks. It turns out that people are much more likely to interact with someone of the opposite gender on LinkedIn than they would in the office. If you think about why that’s true, just focusing on gender, it makes sense to some degree that there are lots of social prohibitions on whether women and men be eating lunch together alone. All of those social prohibitions really inhibit the likelihood that there’s going to be cross-gender interactions, particularly social interactions. But also even just in terms of physicality, how much space literal physical space. Men take up more space and you’ve probably seen the literature showing that taller people tend to have more leadership, to be in positions of leadership. All of this really actually slants the table in terms of making it less likely that there are going to be these cross-gender interactions and fostering inclusion.

At least with respect to gender, and I think it’s true also if you start to think about race or socioeconomic status,. We can actually now hire people that there were other previously have been constraints on hiring. Whether that translates into inclusion is the question. Just because you’re able to have more diversity in the workplace, you are maybe able to hire someone from Omaha who wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford living in New York city to fulfill a job. Whether or not you can actually create a community where they have voice and feel included if they’re working virtually, I think is going to be the challenge.

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 whether our 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.

One big challenge for a lot of organizations is supporting the mental health of their workers. Are there any particular implications of your research for mental health?

Mental health in the workplace is something that I’m incredibly passionate about and I think that it’s been ignored for far too long. Prior to the pandemic companies were beginning to engage with this. So when I was having conversations with a wide variety of companies, even prior to Covid, people had started talking about, can we begin to address the mental health in the workplace? And they were doing it in a way. At work, there’s really strong stigma and prohibitions about talking about mental health.

For instance, talking about depression or addiction at work really, really is difficult. But the conversations start with talking about loneliness and anxiety—and because all of us right now are really dealing on many, many levels with social isolation, loneliness, and anxiety, I think it’s beginning to make those conversations easier. That’s really the entry point for beginning to be able to actually really talk about and address mental health at work. From a de-stigmatization perspective, we’re at a really critical moment. My hope is that when teams are meeting or when a boss is checking in with an employee that they can start to have these conversations, simply asking how are you doing? Are you feeling isolated or lonely? Is there anything that I can do to help you feel connected? If those conversations can start now and carry over to work, then that would start to bring about a radical change in our ability to address mental health.

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 to 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. The nice thing about teaching is sometimes I can make people to do. If you can force people to do this, it’s amazing what happens. This is actually how my husband got his job. That wasn’t the intention. But the benefits are amazing. But 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.

Whether it’s just thanking someone or asking for help, or just even saying, ‘Hey, I saw this article and it made me think of you,’ that’s one of the most effective things that we can do right now. If you can get over the resistance. But you’ve got to actually set aside time to do this. I encourage people who are willing to do this to write down three people that you’ll actually reach out to. I call it ‘fun Friday,’ and set aside 10 minutes on Friday just to actually do it and see how it goes.

What are the practices of people who are particularly successful in connecting with others in ways that are constructive for all parties?

Giving. Adam Grant’s work is right at the heart of this. But we know from a lot of work that one of the best ways both to grow your own network, but also just to contribute, is simply giving. There’s so many things that people can give. You can give someone a sense of purpose. You can give them meaning. You can give them belonging. It’s not just about resources. One of the things that initially drew me to networks and why I get so excited is that they are truly one of the few social systems where the sum is greater than the parts. If we are all giving it’s not like a one-to-one exchange, but as a community we can all grow and thrive and get more out of it if people just shift their orientation.

Will people’s networks and their connections just bounce back after the pandemic?

No. I always try to be optimistic. But the truth is that if we don’t pay attention to them, they don’t. So we know, for instance, if you look over the lifespan [of a person], our networks are largest when they’re 25 and then they tend to get smaller and smaller and smaller over time. Part of the reason that you see such an epidemic of loneliness in the elderly is this tendency of our networks actually to just kind of fade away unless we actually work on growing them. Major life hits contribute to this. Having kids is like falling off a network cliff, and in many ways, what we’ve experienced during the pandemic is what you experience in early motherhood. You don’t leave the house, you stay in your pajamas. And you don’t have the opportunity to see people. Without individuals actively reaching out and reconnecting, and companies and organizations trying to recultivate and rebuild those ties, I don’t think that we’re just naturally going to recover. I also think if companies choose to shift to a hybrid work environment, I think we’re going to face a lot of difficulty in the sense that, from my reading of their research that type of work arrangement is one of the most difficult to maintain if some people are remote and some people are in person. We’ve been through this period where we now realize just how important social connection is, particularly at work. But we may not be able to get it, depending on what the work world looks like when we go back.

Have you found anything that is particularly effective at connecting people across the growing gaps in economic status, and racial separation?

There’s a ton of potential. But it has to be done with thought to it because one of the issues about networks in particular is they tend to be self-reinforcing. If you’re born to parents who have a lot of social capital and you end up going to private school, and then you end up going to an Ivy league college, that this tends to reinforce itself. So things that start off as economic inequalities also have social inequalities mapped onto them, and they exacerbate each other. If we want to start to tackle inequality, whether that’s racial inequality or socioeconomic inequality, we have to first and foremost start to create opportunities for groups that normally wouldn’t interact to interact in the workplace.

For instance, if we look at networks at work and just searching for a job, there was great research that was done by Devah Pager and David Pedulla where they compared white applicants and Black job applicants, and the extent to which they use their networks and then what were the outcomes. What they found is that both for white and Black job applicants, everyone benefited from using their network. But the benefits didn’t accrue nearly as much to Black job applicants, that they essentially had to network twice as hard to achieve the same goals. The point at which that that really mattered was actually at the point of a job offer. So not knowing someone inside the company was the biggest issue with their inability to use their networks as effectively. If we want to start to address this, we need to start to create opportunities where the people who wouldn’t normally be getting in the door can get in the door far earlier, whether that’s through internships, it’s through sponsorship or mentorship of people that you wouldn’t normally be reaching out to. Just having the opportunity to start those relationships far earlier in their career is going to be really, really critical.

Because the earlier you can intervene, the sooner you can start to address what otherwise becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the issues with networks is this idea of preferential attachment. The richer tend to get richer. The earlier in a career that you can intervene to start to create those connections that wouldn’t otherwise exist is going to be really important.

Instead of big group holiday parties, it would be more productive for companies to convene smaller groups of more closely tied people?

Yes. There’s a paper called ‘Getting closer at the company party.’ It’s great. It was done by Kathy Phillips and Tracy Dumas and what they were interested in gets back to the question of race and inequality. What they were interested in is how do opportunities of social interaction differentially benefit different groups in creating a sense of belonging. They compared people who were either in a numerical majority or numerical minority, whether it’s in respect to race or gender. What they found is that both of those groups are equally likely to show up for these types of events, whether it’s a company picnic, the Christmas party. But people who are in the numerical minority often left without having the same sense of belonging. It was almost as if they simply didn’t show up.

And why that they found that was true is that they were less likely to engage in what they called ‘ingratiating behaviors.’ They were less likely to talk about their family. They wouldn’t bring a spouse to one of these parties. Even though they were showing up, they felt like there were aspects of their identity that they had to keep separate. And because of that feeling of being separate while trying to be at something that is creating a sense of being a part of, it actually led them to feel more excluded. If you think about this playing out it makes perfect sense. Particularly when we’re creating opportunities where there’s really no playbook. I have my holiday party today. And I basically am like, ‘I’m not coming.’

If you show up and there’s no structure, it’s just terrible. I shouldn’t be talking about bad about my work, but it’s okay, I do it all the time. So it’s like, let’s all show up and play Pictionary, which is a little bit better. At least we have a common activity. But the issue is that when there’s no structure, it doesn’t allow people actually to connect. There are some people who thrive in that environment and that’s great, but there’s a huge chunk of the population that either feel awkward or don’t feel a sense of belonging.

If we’re trying to get closer, there’s lots of ways that you can do this. We know, for instance, that one of the reasons this backfires in this environment is that self-disclosure increases liking and helps build trust. But if you’re not actually creating opportunities for people to reveal aspects of themselves, then you’re not actually creating an opportunity for connection. So when you’re trying to design these types of interactions, doing it in small groups, that you have actually a structured process of let’s begin to talk about things that are quite safe, but allow us to get to know each other and perhaps discover uncommon commonalities that wouldn’t otherwise surface. You might actually like your colleagues and be like, ‘Oh, I got something out of this.’ That’s one of the opportunities of moving to a more digital space, whether that’s for professional gatherings or holiday parties, is we can start to experiment with different forms of interaction that actually may be much more effective and more comfortable and more inclusive.

Even after the pandemic, it’s less likely that people will get on a plane to travel to conferences or in-person meetings of the sort that generate and maintain connections—will that also have a depressing effect on the size of people’s networks?

I think that’s right, there are going to be fewer mass gatherings. But there’s an opportunity and a challenge. We can do this easier and cheaper and perhaps meet a much broader subset of the population we wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to meet. But to do it well, you have to try to recreate what was actually good about those previous experiences. So how do you create an online engagement where there’s a sense of surprise, that there’s an opportunity to learn, that people really are enjoying themselves? If people can do that—even the simplest approach that people are trying right now where you all do an online class together or something where we’re all learning and experiencing something new and then can share in that shared experience—it’s a starting pointFor someone who figures out how to do this well, I think it will be amazing. It would be so cool, for instance, to be able to hang out with people in Indonesia and the Philippines and be doing something totally different. But the experience has to be there, and it’s hard without the sounds and the smell and the environment.

So many of our interactions now are through video conferencing or different online tools like Slack. How does that impact our connections?

Now after I just was so enthusiastic about video-based conferencing—our own research is actually that nothing is working as an effective substitute for face-to-face communication. Voice calls seem to have a marginally statistically significant effect, but that’s about it. If we’re just looking at loneliness, videoconferencing isn’t making us less lonely, the phone may be helping a little bit. But really it doesn’t appear like there’s any substitute for face-to-face interaction. I haven’t figured out how to message that because I don’t want to be telling people to violating social distancing.

It makes sense, right? I think we’ve gone actually too far the other way. Videoconferencing, by trying to replicate the visual experience and auditory at the same time is actually just increasing distraction, which impedes social connection. There are some types of interactions, particularly if they’re just social, where moving to less bandwidth may actually be better.

A voice call is an example of that?

Yes. And there’s great research on how much the voice is much better at conveying empathy than having video and audio. Hearing a voice of a loved one reduces cortisol levels. It helps reduce stress. Text and other forms of media don’t seem to have the same effect. There’s research to back that up.

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