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Why Are Our Networks Shrinking During Covid-19? – Forbes

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Maintaining our networks during the coronavirus pandemic has had obvious challenges due to the restrictions on meeting people. Indeed, recent Yale research suggests that both our personal and professional networks have shrunk by around 16% during Covid.

Our study found a significant increase in loneliness between June 2019 and June 2020,” the researchers explain. “During this period, which coincided with the COVID-19 epidemic, we found significant decreases in network density and the size of extended acquaintance networks.”

This has obvious implications for our careers, whether it’s finding new work, gaining that promotion, or simply creating new things and being generally innovative. Indeed, a lack of connections has even been linked with higher employee turnover as people feel less of a shared identity with their employer.

Unusual circumstances

Suffice to say, this reduction in our networks is not usually how things go. Ordinarily, our networks are far more likely to churn than they are to shrink, as we move jobs, have children, and do the various things that cause our network to vacillate.

The problem with the Covid period is that we’re not tending to replace the relationships we’re losing with the same efficiency that we previously did. Indeed, it’s a period that’s defined by loneliness, isolation, and a general sense of disconnect from our work.

What’s more, the paper suggests that communicating via Zoom, email, or other digital means doesn’t provide an effective substitution for other forms of social interaction.

Changing habits

Before Covid struck, we would often interact with around a dozen people we’re not hugely familiar with. These interactions with casual acquaintances and strangers have a positive impact on our happiness and our general sense of belonging.

Suffice to say, the pandemic changed that, not only because the opportunities for these casual encounters were eliminated, but we also focused our attention far more on the friends, family, and colleagues we already know well.

So while the strongest relationships tended to be maintained, it was the number of weak ties we have that has suffered most during the pandemic even as the strength of our closest relationships were furnished.

Turtling up

It’s something that researchers have dubbed “turtling up”, as our relationships with those closest to us are strengthened at the expense of those further away. It’s a phenomenon also identified by research conducted last year by Ethan Bernstein, with exchanges between our closest collaborators rising by around 40% during Covid whereas we engage 10% less with those more distant colleagues.

Does this matter? Traditionally we’ve long thought that weak ties were crucial to things like creativity and innovation. When it comes to teamwork, however, this might not be the case.  MIT research from a few years ago highlights how strong ties are actually key to effective collaboration.

When weak ties existed between colleagues, whether along goal or personal orientated lines, there was shown to be no significant impact upon the performance of their team. That was certainly not the case with stronger ties, however, with a clear link between the strength of the ties and the performance of the team.

When solving problems in a competitive environment, the study revealed, it does not matter how many people someone knows or networks with — what really matters are the strongest ties in the network. This has implications for the organization of teams of scientists, engineers, and a host of others tackling today’s most complex problems.

Similar findings emerged from a 2008 study into the role connections play in start-ups. It found that strong ties amongst the start-up team saw an increase in team performance amongst the group.

Creative ties

Of course, that is great when we know where we want to go, but when we need to create new paths, weak ties tend to come into their own. Research from Rice University has shown that so-called “non-redundant ties” are key to our creativity.

These are people that we don’t interact with directly ourselves, but who our connections do. They’re 2nd tier connections in other words. It turns out that they’re the key to our creative output.

“More specifically, when networking, building two-step nonredundant ties — which means one’s two direct network ties are not connected by the same third person — is the most efficient way for obtaining nonredundant information and generating creative ideas,” the authors explain. “Thus, employees need to proactively build network ties with such people.”

Gender differences

The Yale research suggests that women’s networks haven’t shrunk by as much as men’s. Indeed, whereas men’s networks shrunk by around 30%, women’s networks had barely shrunk at all. The researchers believe this is perhaps due to the “natural networking style” women have, with a propensity to talk to maintain emotional closeness evident in women more than men.

By contrast, men tend to network via activities, be that drinks after work or playing sport. These activities have obviously been significantly curtailed during the pandemic, which the researchers believe explains the drop-off in connections for men.

Maintaining our connections provides numerous advantages during a pandemic in which loneliness is as big a problem as the virus itself. Making time each week to maintain your connections can not only ensure your network remains strong, therefore, but also do wonders for your mental wellbeing.



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