Why a more tribal work life might be a good thing

Written by: Gillian Tett
Published on: 10 May 2022

© Shonagh Rae

Many of us in America and Europe are tiptoeing back into the office. For some, it’s a relief; for others, a curse. Either way, as we reacclimatise it is worth considering how the Covid-19 lockdowns have increased our tendency to be tribal beings.

Most of us have already confronted this in relation to our families and friends as lockdown forced us to define our social ties with the kind of crass hierarchy you normally only see on a school playground.

Think about it: in March 2020, we all had to select who was in our isolation “pod”. Everybody else was in a wider circle involving remote communication. The reverberations of this enforced tribalism will last for years. After all, a tribe is defined both by who is in it and who is left out.

The question of how our workplace interactions have been changed by remote working has been less talked about, explicitly at least. Companies don’t like to admit that their own employees might be tribal, and, if workers start analysing who they talk to at work, they are apt to seem paranoid or obsessive (or both).

However, a team of researchers from Harvard Business School, Johns Hopkins University and Microsoft has done precisely this, with some intriguing results. They have crunched through the interaction patterns revealed in more than 360bn Microsoft Outlook emails sent by 1.4bn corporate employees over a 24-month period before and after the start of Covid-19, at 4,000 companies around the world, including Microsoft itself.

They did not peek at the contents of the emails or the identity of the participants, who remained anonymous. Instead they studied the so-called modularity patterns, the degree to which communications were tightly clustered into self-contained cyber silos, or tribes.

Before Covid, this varied between places. At one end of the spectrum, workers in Germany communicated in cyber silos to a great degree. At the other end, companies in Canada had less departmental tribalism. (The rest of Europe and America sat somewhere in between.)

Yet when lockdowns started in early 2020, two noticeable shifts occurred: first, of course, the overall level of email communication exploded. Second, modularity levels rose sharply in all locations.

There are some important caveats. The research covered only 2021, so we do not know if this shift to tighter silos was just a reaction to lockdown or has been maintained. The team did not attempt to track Zoom calls or other intra-office communications. And the research shows that while modularity levels inside teams were high, membership of these cyber silos rotated, presumably because people changed jobs.

However, as the team behind the project writes, the overall message is clear: “Workplace communications around the world were drastically altered by Covid-19 and the resulting work-from-home orders and rise of remote work . . . in 2020, organisations around the world became more siloed than in 2019.”

Is this a good or bad thing? The silo effect is an issue I have been mulling ever since I wrote a book of that name about the anthropology of modern tribalism. The only honest answer is “it depends”. Sometimes there are benefits to working in silos as small teams are usually more efficient and accountable than unstructured groups.

I know from my own experience during lockdowns that it was much easier for teams with “social capital”, such as pre-existing trust and tight bonds, to communicate via Zoom. “Collaborating with people with similar domain knowledge [shared expertise]” increases trust, co-operation, efficiency and rapid sharing of information and tacit knowledge, the researchers note.

The downside of silos is that they can make bright people do stupid things. Before the 2008 financial crisis, for example, silos inside banks caused managers to miss risks — or fail to “join the dots” of what their traders were doing. That’s not all. As the researchers point out, siloing may reduce innovation in some organisations because “innovation often arises from novel combinations of distantly held knowledge”. In other words, small, rigid teams can get stale.

When we return to the office, there will be some adaptations to lockdowns that we wish to keep. The fact that video calls and emails can help small teams interact efficiently, even when they are apart, is a good thing. So is the fact that these tools help professionals working in the same field at different institutions interact. One example was an unprecedented level of collaboration between epidemiologists at different global institutions. Let us hope that this continues.

However, if we allow our pandemic-era cyber tribes to turn into rigid and closed IRL tribes, we will all suffer. So ask yourself who you have not emailed recently — and try to get in touch soon, maybe even in person. Whether it’s the water cooler, canteen or bar, all can play a small role in helping us not get stuck in a silo. Or workplace tribe.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at gillian.tett@ft.com

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