Networks closed down during the pandemic. We need to open them back up
The pandemic has changed a lot of things about how we live our lives. Some people and places have been more impacted than others, but we all have seen a change in the way we interact with each other. A year into it, we know the value of toilet paper and disinfecting wipes. Masks have become ubiquitous in environments where they weren’t before, and we all understand “pod” to mean more than just a group of dolphins. We have had to make difficult choices in the ways we interact with others. Beyond the lives lost, the pandemic has also taken from us something social, something intrinsically human – it has taken our larger community and narrowed it down to a few.
A recent article in The Atlantic by Amanda Mull highlighted the loss of weak ties, all those people who experience life with us, but not WITH us – the barista who knows how to spell your name, your neighbor who you have seen every morning for 3 years, but still can’t quite remember their name, or all those people cheering with you at an event. Many of these ties seem to have disappeared during the Pandemic. These ties are not strong enough to bind us when our survival depends on being alone, or at least podded up with our 10 closest people. “During the past year, it’s often felt like the pandemic has come for all but the closest of my close ties.” Mull says.
The research is very clear on the importance of strong ties, but in a world where weak ties feel like an avenue for infection and to be avoided at all cost, the effect of their loss is staggering. “Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks.” says Mull. We don’t have access to completely new ideas. We don’t have a random conversation at the supermarket and learn how to pronounce quinoa. We don’t get to overhear the person next to us talking casually about a new restaurant. In a work environment, we lost the friendly banter in the kitchen that exposes us to new information at work, including new opportunities. Instead, we are consistently surrounded by the same information from the same people – our networks are closing.
We have seen in our data that more executive leaders have developed a closed network since the pandemic hit. In one leadership cohort we’ve worked with over time, we saw that leaders’ networks closed down by 60% year over year. In November 2019, the majority of these leaders had open networks. In November 2020, less than 15% of leaders had open networks. Most leaders, like most of the world, were not fully prepared to be remote workers. They haven’t built their networks to support a work from home standpoint.
It’s not just leaders who are struggling to build connections. Authors Balazs Kovacs, Nicholas Caplan, Samuel Grob, discuss the increase of the feelings of loneliness and the decrease of network density in their recently published journal, Social Networks and Loneliness During the Covid 19 Pandemic. The more connections a person had with their strong ties, the less lonely they felt. But, “Interestingly, emailing with strangers (people previously not known to the participant) was also associated with lower levels of increase in self-reported loneliness.” they state.
Our research is finding that our closest connection can help us get things done and in the last year these ties have been an absolute necessity, helping us overcome the challenges and achieve our goals in the midst of a global pandemic. But, closed networks can become the resounding echo chamber of group think – a dangerous thing in a time when innovations and novel problem solving strategies are needed most. We need to fight the inertial closing of our networks. Leaders must become even more intentional about opening up their networks. But, in the age of Zoom socials and 6ft masked social gatherings, how do we do this? Prior to the pandemic, one might have socials or conferences or lunches. We had “codified” ways of colliding perspectives. So, how does one build an open network now?
We have a few suggestions and ways for individuals to open up their network. The key to it all, however, is intentionality. Leaders must construct opportunities for new “chance” connections to occur within their network and the networks of their teams.
Nobody knows how long we will stay in a virtual work environment. There is hope as things begin to open up, but the world has shifted. One day, we will all hopefully have the opportunity to go back to movies and happy hours, but some organizations are making long term decisions to remain virtual. Adopting the practice of creating serendipitous connections will help leaders continue to develop open networks full of opportunity and new information.