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The New Social Contract: Fewer Close Connections At Work Means Slower Change

We are not only missing out on the company bowling league and barbeques: we are diminishing our capacity to make behavioral — and hence organizational — change.


In a great NY Times piece, Adam Grant ties together a number of studies that boil down to this: Americans are socializing less at work. In 1985, about one half of US workers said they had a close friend at work, which has shriveled — under the hot sun of the shifting social contract — so that only 30 percent say they do, now.

Adam Grant, Friends at Work? Not So Much

Why are Americans so determined to get down to business?

The economic explanation is that long-term employment has essentially vanished: Instead of spending our careers at one organization, we expect to jump ship every few years. Since we don’t plan to stick around, we don’t invest in the same way. We view co-workers as transitory ties, greeting them with arms-length civility while reserving real camaraderie for outside work. At best, as the movie “Fight Club” termed our conversation partners on airplanes, colleagues become “single-serving friends.”

Some observers blame the rise of flextime and virtual work. When more people are working remotely, we have fewer chances for the face-to-face encounters that are so critical to companionship. But a comprehensive analysis of 46 studies of over 12,000 employees demonstrated that as long as people were in the office for at least two and a half days per week, “telecommuting had no generally detrimental effects on the quality of workplace relationships.”

This doesn’t rule out the impact of technological advances. When we’re constantly connected with old friends on social media — and we can travel to visit them anytime — why bother making new ones? With 24/7 connectivity, we face a growing time famine, where the pressure to get work done may eclipse the desire to socialize.

Turns out we can’t blame remote working for the cooling of social connection. Instead, the paradoxical outcome of social connectedness is to decrease the likelihood of creating new ties with coworkers at a new place of employment, since we can remain tight with those we no longer work with, or to remain connected with friends from school.

Grant points out that Americans are unusually reserved, according to surveys, with US workers only inviting 32 percent of close colleagues to their homes. Contrast that with 71 percent in India, and 66% in Poland.

Let’s pair this line of inquiry with the research of Damon Centola at MIT: he’s shown that behavioral change is more likely to propagate in dense social networks.

Jess McNally, Clustered Networks Spread Behavior Change Faster

centola1HR-660x358

To do the experiment, he created an internet-based health community and invited people already participating in other online health forums to join. Over 1,500 people signed up to participate, and they were placed anonymously in one of two different kinds of networks: a random network with many distant ties (above left), or a clustered network with many overlapping connections (above right).

Users in both networks had the same number of assigned “health buddies.” They couldn’t contact their buddies directly, but they could see how their buddies rated content on the site, and could receive e-mails informing them of their buddies activities. Centola said he deliberately didn’t pay the volunteers, so they would participate out of legitimate interest in the site’s content.

In six different trials over a period a few weeks, Centola seeded the site with information about an online health forum and tracked people as they signed up and participated.

In the clustered network, 54 percent of the people signed up for the forum, compared to 38 percent in the random network, and almost four times as fast. Not surprisingly, Centola also found the more friends people had that also signed up, the more likely they were to return to the forum to participate.

If we prize the capacity to make change — an essential element of being agile, for example — then we should be working hard to counter the anti-socializing trend in US business. Perhaps this lack of inside-the-company connection is why so many change programs are failing, and why transformation seems more difficult than ever to accomplish.


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