Dunbar's number in remote teams


Excuse me, what number again?

Maybe you’ve heard of Dunbar’s number. It’s the maximum number of people you can have a stable social relationship with: the kind where you know the other person, at least somewhat. Dunbar guesstimated this number at about 150 people, for humans.

Dunbar’s number is important because it puts a cap on the size of departments, or teams-of-teams, or other organisational structures. Once the group becomes too large, it breaks down and splits into subgroups; you won’t know all the people in your organisation, only about 150 of them.

Modern organisational frameworks try to take this sort of thing into account. SAFe for instance explicitly references Dunbar’s 150-person threshold as a reason for shaping their framework the way they do.

Dunbar and remote work

This next bit is pure speculation, but it… feels true to me: I think this number only applies to organisations where coworkers are physically co-located. Now that remote work is on the rise (partly because of Covid, but it was increasing anyway), I think this number has to be recalibrated.

In “regular” work environments, you might walk over to their desk to discuss something, or bump into them in the break room, or share birthday cake.

In remote environments, all of these things go away – and even if efforts are made to connect coworkers, they tend to take place only at the team level. In the before-Covid times, remote-friendly companies might pay for a team to get together regularly… but probably not the entire social bubble, which might also include Nancy from accounting and Ron the nice janitor.

Surely you’ll ahve something like a company Slack, but if you ask in a channel, you’re essentially asking the channel, not a particular person. And thus it might feel like you’re getting an answer from the channel, not a real person.

So my suspicion is that cohesion will not be quite as strong, and communication not flow quite as easily – just because it’s harder to understand who you should be speaking to, and being aware that you’re communicating with humans.

Team organisation

And yet again, that will influence not just how we work, but also how we architect our products. Remember, Conway’s law postulates that a product’s structure mirrors the communications structures within the organisation that created the product.

So, unavoidably, remote organisations will end up building differently-shaped products.