Are We Facing the Death of Teams, or a Rebirth?

The pandemic and belonging.

Posted Jan 06, 2021

By Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova

A lot has been written about how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed life—not just individual lives, but interactive life, or how we relate to others. A group is, by its very nature, a social thing and an example of interactive life. But if we are getting more and more isolated, what does that mean for the future of groups themselves? We think of work groups and social, non-work groups to both be legitimate and important. While people don’t always choose the people they work with, social interaction still occurs within them, and at least up to when the pandemic began, lots of our time socializing with others was, in fact, spent in the workplace.

Increasing social isolation is nothing new. Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone about the decline of civic groups and associations in American life. Membership has since dropped across the board, from church groups to school-oriented groups like the PTA to work-oriented groups like labor unions, according to a 2019 Congressional report. The report found membership in some of these groups, tracked from 1974 onward, all fell at various rates, but most dramatically for fraternal social groups, such as the Freemasons and Knights of Columbus.

So, we were already getting less and less “groupy” at work and otherwise. The key is that the pandemic has accelerated those trends, and by a lot, enough so that people now realize we are more isolated from one another. Forty years of creeping isolation and joining fewer clubs is hard for most people to feel or recognize. But quitting social groups, and even work groups, to spend most of your time just in your apartment over the span of a few months, well, most people feel that.

What does all this mean? The ominous message is that the amount of social interaction with others will continue to decline for most people; in fact, some think the pandemic’s effects will stick in the sense that some collective bonds with each other will be permanently weakened. The New York Times recently reported that according to a survey of leading epidemiologists, even after everyone is vaccinated, it may take a year or more for many activities to safely restart. Some parts of daily life may never return to the way they were. The implications for a functioning society—who you meet (or don’t meet), who you get to know, how families start and who you start it with—may all be affected, a troubling prospect for many.

But before you despair, there is another perspective and more hopeful possibility connected to all this desocialization. Because it pounced on us and caused so many changes so fast, what if the pandemic has caused us to take notice of our separateness and the rather painful, unpleasant effects most people feel that comes with not being around others enough? After all, most people we know tell us they don’t like living through a pandemic and miss face-to-face interactions! So, while Putnam and others have raised important issues about loss of community, lack of civic engagement, and a reduction in social life for years, it’s the COVID-fueled, dramatic gearing down of social life this past year that has impacted people. Could it be that this “anti-social inflection point” of isolation is just the disrupter needed to shock some into rediscovering groups and rejoining them (post-pandemic)? 

While work groups may permanently adopt virtual meetings for efficiency or other reasons, one thing the pandemic has shown us is that social media platforms cannot replace face-to-face interactions completely. An optimist might hope the very intensity of change in social interaction the pandemic caused will stop or even reverse the trend to de-group. Perhaps the big question to ask is this: As the pandemic and its restrictions on gatherings subside, what steps should social organizations take to increase the chance that groups and community make a comeback? While there is not a lot of data or experience to help us, this seems a very important question to raise as 2021 unfolds. The way we recover from the pandemic socially, as well as individually, may have effects far beyond this year.