We need casual talk at work to help our ideas flow

Everyone is signalling the demise of the water cooler, so it is worth asking what we will lose if we have to join a socially distanced queue for a beverage at work. Assuming that we, or the water cooler itself for that matter, will be allowed back into the office.

One potential victim is the catalyst for creativity that the casual gathering round the water-dispenser provides.

Such informal meetings, now stigmatised as breeding grounds for disease, also spawn ideas. They lead to the formation of bottom-up, self-managing groups that discuss topics and work on tasks of mutual interest. If all or even some of the members of these groups cannot convene in person, their shared interest could ebb away.

“Small groups have to meet often, otherwise they lose their glue,” says Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford university. If forced to meet online, “it’s very easy for one member to drift out of the virtual backdoor and lose perspective or focus. How you manage that is a big issue”.

Prof Dunbar is best-known for “Dunbar’s number” — the idea, based on studies of primates, mobile phone calls, campsites, and military hierarchy among other networks — that 150 is the natural upper limit for meaningful social and friendship groups. He has found that naturally stable groups emerge in layers starting with roughly five people, then 15 and 50, and on up beyond 150 to groups of 500 and 1,500.

While plenty of management thinkers have extrapolated from his “social brain hypothesis”, Prof Dunbar himself has not looked at its occurrence in business, until now.

In a new peer-reviewed paper, Prof Dunbar teams up with Emily Webber to show that the same age-old hunter-gatherer structures apply to professional “communities of practice”. These are the groups of shared interest that often spring — or sprang — from water-cooler chit-chat. Ms Webber, a coach and consultant, says on her blog that smaller communities create camaraderie, “add to a positive experience in the workplace” and, anecdotally, seem to have “a positive effect on recruitment and retention”.

When such networks reach roughly 40 members, though, they start to need more formal management; and as they grow larger, their meetings become less frequent.

There are exceptions. In another study, Prof Dunbar found traditional Hutterite farming communities, which still persist in North America, could expand their democratic, self-governing gatherings until they were 100 or 150-strong. (There was a “covert” management structure, though: smaller groups of men, who took all the decisions.)

The latest paper dovetails neatly with top-down theories about “span of control”, the ideal number of direct reports for any manager. Top-downers and bottom-uppers agree hierarchy emerges naturally, indeed becomes essential, when teams reach a certain size. The trade-off, Prof Dunbar told me, is between “allowing flexibility at the coalface, which gives you your creativity, and having enough control of all these various units so they all pull in the same direction, rather than behaving chaotically”.

What happens if face-to-face contact becomes harder is largely speculation. Prof Dunbar’s number applies to online networks, not just primitive tribes or army battalions. Many teams have discovered they function as well remotely as they used to in the workplace. Some successful communities observed in the latest study were entirely virtual. Whatever happens when the pandemic recedes, companies will operate mixed teams of remote and office or factory workers. Collaboration could increase.

There is a reason, though, why companies are trying to replicate the experience of staff who normally work side by side. Buffering broadband and clunky videocall technology make impossible the rapid creative exchanges between colleagues used to chatting round a table.

Meanwhile, scheduled online “tea trolleys” and “coffee mornings” — the mutant children of those spontaneous water-cooler moments — are increasingly irritating now that calendars are jammed with more pressing virtual appointments. The new study was carried out before coronavirus hit, but a third of complaints from community members related to difficulties with “time juggling”, a common lament of staff working from home in lockdown.

Managers could step in. That, however, would be a mistake. The most productive work communities are self-motivating, fuelled by duty to fellow members or a shared interest in a challenge. “That’s not going to arise naturally by somebody forcing you to do it,” points out Prof Dunbar, let alone by bosses blundering online to try to direct the discussion. “Management may well be interested in fostering [the community’s] ends, but the danger is they come in and give a lecture.”

andrew.hill@ft.com

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