the physical dimension

Global Strategies: Virtual Distance


Written by Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski and Dr. Richard Reilly   

Sunday, 01 May 2011 00:00

Smartphones, web conferencing, telecommuting, and global virtual teams are just a few of the technological changes that have radically altered the way we collaborate and conduct business today. We can maintain contact with our customers and coworkers at any time and from almost any place. We can instantly call someone across the globe on Skype or conduct a meeting with our global team using high definition video conferencing. Physical distance is no longer a barrier to a face-to-face conversation—or is it? Despite the amazing evolution of communications technology, physical distance still affects how we interact. For example, a recent experiment showed that believing an anonymous online partner was in the same city (versus across the country) influenced the level of trust and cooperation on a problem-solving task. When the subject thought that they were further away, they tended to be less Global Strategies: Virtual Distancepersuasive and deceive the other person more than when they thought they were closer. Even more important are other factors that create what we call virtual distance. Virtual distance is a product of three major dimensions: physical distance, operational distance, and affinity distance. We’ve found virtual distance can be just as high among co-located groups as it is between far-flung teams. We have also found instances where virtual distance was low between people located thousands of miles apart. Whether people are sitting across the hall or across the globe, your organization is likely suffering from some degree of virtual distance. As figure 1 shows, each of the virtual distance dimensions can be divided into more specific factors that help to create a psychological sense of being apart. Physical distance. In addition to geographic distance, physical distance includes temporal distance (differences in time zones or work schedules that make communication and scheduling difficult) and organizational distance (difficulties working with individuals from other organizations, such as contractors, or separate divisions of a larger organization). Operational distance. This is the psychological distance that grows from day-to-day issues that arise in the workplace, and it’s influenced by four factors. Multitasking refers to the extent to which team members are facing competing demands from multiple projects and multiple deliverables. Distribution asymmetry is a function of both the size of a team and the physical distribution of its members. Readiness distance is a function of a users’ skill with communication technology and the technical support available. Communications distance has to do with a lack of shared context and the mix of communication modes, particularly the extent to which face-to-face communications are used at critical junctures. Affinity distance. This is the most important dimension of virtual distance, and it has to do with the development and maintenance of relationships. Cultural distance is created by dissimilarity in values, attitudes, and communication styles. Social distance is created when team members lean heavily on their hierarchical position in the organization instead of their actual contribution to the team effort. Interdependence distance occurs when team members do not perceive the mutual interdependencies of their work with other team members. Relationship distance is a function of an individual’s social network. Knowing other team members well or even knowing a lot of the same people can reduce relationship distance. Let’s have lunch Although the three dimensions all influence virtual distance, they each play a different role. As noted, the physical dimension has been shown to influence cooperation and trust. Our research has found that physical distance can get in the way of innovation and project success. When we are physically apart, many of the social skills that we have developed become irrelevant. We can’t walk over to our teammate or boss to talk or go to lunch with a colleague to discuss a problem or exchange ideas.   The operational dimension can further distance us from our coworkers. Imagine being on a team where most of the members are located in the same conference room and you are alone thousands of miles away. This is what we mean by distribution asymmetry. To overcome this, some companies put policies in place that say whenever there’s a meeting with at least one person that’s attending virtually, all the members of the group should also call in instead of showing up to the same conference room. Executives conceive this as more just—it is not. Instead management creates a situation where more people, not less, feel isolated and socially out of place. Multitasking, another operational factor, can create distance when it is extreme. Multiple projects, multiple deadlines, and multiple bosses can overwhelm employees, resulting in no one project or task getting enough attention or the interaction necessary to develop relationships with other teammates is minimal and strained. The final dimension, affinity distance, is perhaps the most important. Having a strong, trusting relationship with another team member can dissolve physical and operational barriers. In business relationships, it’s affinity that holds teams together despite location, nationality, or organizational affiliation. The absence of affinity, or a weak affinity, has the strongest influence on virtual distance. Closing the gaps on this variable can effectively counterbalance many other distance issues.

Beyond academics We have interviewed and surveyed thousands of individuals and many companies to determine the extent to which each of the eleven factors that make up virtual distance exist in their project or job. To oversimplify, we calculate a Virtual Distance Index as VDI = (physical) + (operational) + (affinity). Because the index is really the product of eleven components, we can see where the major pressure points are for virtual distance within an organization or project team. This allows us to measure an overall level of virtual distance and gives us some important diagnostic information. Virtual distance may be costing you millions in failed projects or getting in the way of competitive advantage and innovation. What began as academic research has turned into a multi-year set of research and consulting projects in which we have assessed the various factors that make up virtual distance for hundreds of projects. We were also able to measure a number of other key indicators that helped us understand how virtual distance influences a variety of important organizational outcomes. The outcomes that we looked at included:

· Trust: the degree to which people trusted one another

· Organizational citizenship: the degree to which people engaged in voluntary behaviors like helping one another and sharing information

· Innovative behavior: the extent to which people were behaving in innovative ways

· Satisfaction: the extent to which people were satisfied with their participation in the project

· Vision clarity: the extent to which people understood and shared a common vision for the project

We separated our sample into two groups: those with very high virtual distance and those with very low virtual distance. For every outcome we measured, there were large and statistically significant differences. Higher virtual distance meant more negative outcomes. We also measured project success: the bottom line. We found that for those with high virtual distance, the success rate was less than 15%. The low virtual distance sample has a success rate of more than 80%. The world of work has changed, so the way we measure success and manage people must also change. The factors that create virtual distance are likely to increase as business becomes more global and reliant on technology—measuring and managing virtual distance will be key to your organization’s survival and growth. Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski is a professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stonybrook University and the founder of Virtual Distance International and the Virtual Distance Institute. Dr. Richard Reilly is a consultant and emeritus professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Together, they authored Uniting the Virtual Workforce (Wiley, 2008).