Evolution, Social interaction and the Workplace

This article is the first in a series covering various aspects of remote work. Addressing psychology and mental health in remote work can’t be a single article, there’s too much to cover. From communication and management, to social interaction, team building and mental health: remote work has thrown us into a whole new experience of collaboration and interaction. For this article we’ll start from the basics – who are we and what do we need?


Social Interaction

Humans evolved as a social species. Much of our evolutionary success has come from interaction and knowledge-sharing, and living in groups. We never evolved to sit in an office, but we also didn’t evolve to sit alone at home every day – so being forced to do so can not only be detrimental to our mental health, but also to our work collaborations.

Through the millenia, people have lived in groups and worked in groups. Based on our physical body structure and the environments we evolved in, interactions between early humans and their environments must have been a group process. Finding food, avoiding predation, surviving cold nights – must have been a group effort. Over time, when these behaviours are more successful in a group context, then early humans with better adaptations to group-living survive, leading to our unique modern human mental systems. One evidence to this adaptation is that human babies have evolved to be extremely dependent on their mothers in the first years of their lives, meaning some kind of social structure has to form to support both mother and baby to be fed and survive in the wild.

The sudden shift to remote work during the pandemic threw many employees into unforeseen situations: not only was work suddenly something relying entirely on screen interactions, but for many it meant living alone or with only a tiny group of individuals they saw every day. Researchers at Lund University found that introverts actually faced more mental struggles under the period of isolated home-working than their extroverted colleagues did. This was corroborated by research from a Virginia-based consultancy firm – amongst other factors, introverts were less likely to seek social support in this difficult period – support which is important to optimal mental functioning in our species.

When creating a remote-first or hybrid working strategy, employers should be aware of the implications of their policies on different personality types. Introverts usually benefit more from periods of remote work, in the right context where this is not coupled with extreme social isolation. If you want your workers to be able to thrive, personality and context are important to consider. Small talk and opportunities to socialise are important to all employees, and help build a feeling of closeness, so a struggling remote employee may feel more comfortable opening up.


Optimal Group Size

Another consideration for the workplace comes from Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar. He proposed a cognitive limit to how many stable social interactions a person can maintain. He set this number at 150, based on research in primates and human groups. The number is also broken down into smaller group sizes, with whom we can hold more or less interaction. Dunbar’s proposal has been contested – with the suggestion that the human social brain works differently to the primate social brain, and that too much emphasis is placed on the social role of the neocortex (large part of the brain responsible for most higher-order behaviours and thinking). However, Dunbar has stood by his proposal through these claims, and his work has even been used in structuring organisations.

He argues we can keep 5 people in a “core group”, to whom we donate 40% of our available social time, and 10 more people to whom we donate 20%. In the case of an organisation, this number allows us to create groups of an optimal size for collaboration. Even within remote work, we need to remember that work benefits when employees keep track of projects, and have responsibility for them. Bigger groups make this harder, and can make freeloading and poor communication more likely.

However, the use of technology lowers the transaction cost of communication – it is easier to send an email to 20 people than to collect them all in one room, or chase them down individually to share information – meaning these optimal group sizes could increase slightly. However, to avoid loss of individual responsibility in tasks, and encourage maximum communication/cooperation, a group number of around 5-7 individuals could still be optimal.

In summary: we have evolved as social animals, with a focus on small-medium group contexts. This has implications for organisations wanting to design an optimal work structure: close social interactions are important for belonging, and should be encouraged at work where possible – especially in remote setups, where this interaction doesn’t come naturally. So how will you use our evolution to your advantage?