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Together, Alone: Defining the Right Social Distance for Family and Teams in the New Normal

  • June 2020

Social distancing rules are an inevitable repercussion of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are slowly becoming part of our daily routine. Their introduction has triggered a lot of talk about potential negative mental and social affects. As many of us are currently isolated from our coworkers, friends, and sometimes even from beloved family members, loneliness remains a big concern.

At the same time, I’m witnessing some colleagues struggle because of too much togetherness at home. Husbands, wives and kids constantly juggle too much, while trapped in the confined space of their homes. What was once the family retreat has become a co-working facility, and it definitely isn’t fit for its new multi-purposes. “We’re home-working, home-schooling, home-cleaning… and home-fighting!” declared a colleague recently.

As the world gradually emerges out of lockdown, I ask myself how individuals, families, teams and whole organizations will find the right balance in the new normal? Will we be more isolated? Or more together? Unfortunately, I don’t have a black-and-white answer, but I’ve found inspiration for reflection in two frameworks: the “Hedgehog Effect”, and the “Circumplex Model of Family Systems”.

We’re all just like hedgehogs

In his book “The Hedgehog Effect”, Manfred Kets de Vries compares the formation of teams with the behavior observed in hedgehogs during wintertime, as described by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in one of his studies. In winter, hedgehogs try to get as close to one another when it grows cold to share body heat. However, once they do so, they hurt each other with their spines. So, to be more comfortable, they move away from each other. The cold, however, drives them together again, and the same thing happens. At last, after a great deal of uncomfortable huddling and chilly dispersion, the hedgehogs discover they are best off remaining at a short distance away from each other.

When faced with the social dilemma of working as a team or living as a family, we’re all just like hedgehogs. We need to be together to give each other energy, but if this togetherness is excessive, then over time we feel each other’s spines and may hurt each other. There are many variables that define our own individual limits, and reveal what’s our own measure of too much isolation or too much togetherness: our level of introversion versus extroversion, our personal attachment styles, (PSYCHOTHERAPY - John Bowlby) our upbringing, and our cultural background are just a few of the ingredients that compose our own “relational soup”. Knowing oneself is therefore the first building block in figuring out what level of distance (from other hedgehog-humans) feels right for each one of us.

Once we know that with some degree of confidence, the second important piece of the puzzle comes into play: letting others know our ideal distance, i.e. defining the boundaries with our neighboring hedgehogs, whether team peers, bosses or family members. Defining those boundaries with others is not always an easy process, but often a very rewarding one. And perhaps one of the many silver linings of the COVID-crisis is the chance to reflect on the dynamics in our social or team life, whether it’s set at our personal optimum, or if not, to press the reset button to rebalance things to a new normal that feels better - for us, and maybe also for others around us.

The family system under stress

These elements are also present in another psychological framework: the “Circumplex Model of Family Systems” by David H. Olson. I became familiar with this couple therapy model a few years ago as I wrote my master thesis and was trying to decode how family systems react when faced with unexpected or crisis situations. This model synthesizes the key dimensions that constitute the magic “balance” for a family, which Olson described as the area where happiness is achieved for all members of the system, but also as the most effective place to be when a family needs to navigate unexpected or crisis situations.

The first of the three dimensions in the model is “togetherness vs separateness”, namely how much time family members spend “on their own” versus “all together”. It’s about “me” time versus “we” time. In short, if there’s too much of either, the family system strays out of balance - life is stressful for most family members, and there’s little satisfaction for anyone. Their advice, therefore, is to balance “I” and “we” time as much as possible. That can easily work well in normal life, but what about during a lockdown, where the vast majority of us don’t really have a choice? What if togetherness is being “forced on us”, like right now? Do we need to endure suffering for the whole time of the lockdown? Well, maybe not. The next two elements of Olson’s framework could provide inspiration here.

“Leadership flexibility” is the second dimension in the model, and it addresses how fluid the leadership roles are within a family: in a “rigid” family system, for example, it could be that mum always does the cooking and the grocery shopping, whereas dad always acts as the handyman, and takes care of the finances. And the key word here is “always” - i.e. those roles never change. A “chaotic” family system, on the other hand, has ever-changing roles, where it is hard to guess who does what. For example, discussing at 8pm: “shall I cook dinner, or will you do it today?” Healthy families are neither rigid nor chaotic: they have roles but can change them to adapt to unexpected situations: like who helps with homeschooling, who cleans the kitchen, or who does the cooking. That all might be different right now, but with a little bit of trial and error can be adapted to cope with these challenging times.

Revisiting our social distance contracts

The third and most powerful dimension in Olson’s framework is “communication”, and this connects with the hedgehog dilemma. In our family or in our work setup, it’s important nowadays to speak out when too much closeness hurts us, equally shouting out for help when we feel isolated, forgotten, excluded or lonely. Hedgehogs communicate by moving closer together and farther apart as the spines or the cold make them uncomfortable. We can use kind words to accomplish the same effect, while constantly adapting as these unprecedented times unfold. That might be a great way to achieve that sweet spot where it just “feels good” to be together but remain slightly apart, where we feel warm yet don’t hurt each other.

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