If you feel disconnected and isolated at work, don’t just blame pandemic-induced stay-at-home orders. Over the past two decades, the widespread use of digital communication tools has been isolating workers even when sharing the same workspace.
Managers must work to shrink “Virtual Distance” through connection and affinity, argue Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly in their book “The Power of Virtual Distance”. The authors offer practical advice on how to promote trust and nurture relationships in a world where “shooting a quick email” often seems like the most convenient and time-efficient way to communicate.
Many workers feel increasingly disconnected and isolated due to the unbridled use of digital communication technologies, organizational divisiveness, and leaders who fail to nurture relationships and trust throughout the workforce. Managers must work to shrink “Virtual Distance” through connection and affinity, say founder and CEO of Virtual Distance International Karen Sobel Lojeski and research psychologist Richard R. Reilly. The authors first drew attention to the phenomena of Virtual Distance in the book’s first edition in 2008. As they predicted, Virtual Distance has since become worse and is threatening key business outcomes.
- The widespread use of digital communication tools creates “Virtual Distance” within organizations.
- Eliminating telework or forcing employees into open-concept workplaces doesn’t shrink Virtual Distance.
- Physical separation represents just one component of Virtual Distance.
- Three main types of exclusion and separation increase Virtual Distance: Physical, Organizational, and Affinity.
- Assess the Virtual Distance within your organization, then make a plan to reverse its effects.
- Today’s teams come together temporarily and remotely, allowing little time for traditional cohesion.
- Adopt a new, “soul-based” leadership style to lessen Virtual Distance.
The widespread use of digital communication tools creates “Virtual Distance” within organizations.
The widespread use of digital communication technologies, and workers’ increasing reliance on those tools, isolates individuals, even when they share a workspace. This widening gap between workers creates a barrier to effective collaboration and innovation. Managing Virtual Distance has, thus, grown into a critical leadership responsibility. Analysis based on a global data set proves that this new imperative affects firms and workers everywhere.
Unchecked, Virtual Distance grows. As the distance between employees, managers, customers, and other stakeholders expands, trust erodes dramatically, as does leadership impact, creativity, performance, employee engagement, and overall organizational success. Leaders can stop and reverse the decline by taking active measures. First, they must recognize, assess and prioritize the problems Virtual Distance creates. Then, they should employ new and traditional leadership and cultural techniques and practices that reduce Virtual Distance across the enterprise.
Eliminating telework or forcing employees into open-concept workplaces doesn’t shrink Virtual Distance.
Today most employees fit the description of a virtual worker: They use digital means of communication, work remotely on a regular basis, or answer emails and texts during evenings, weekends, while at professional events, or on vacation.
Banning remote work or removing cubicles in favor of open workspaces doesn’t help decrease Virtual Distance. Instead, work to reduce the various forms of physical and relationship distance that exist between workers – especially between those of different generations – leaders and stakeholders.
“Virtual Distance can be described as a felt sense of distance that grows unconsciously when we rely heavily on mediated communications through smart digital devices.”
Too few firms appear to manage the elements contributing to Virtual Distance well. According to the research organization The Conference Board, a majority of employees report dissatisfaction with workplace communications. The fact that more and more workers engage in virtual work often complicates the problem but does not cause it.
Physical separation represents just one component of Virtual Distance.
Numerous studies show that when people work thirty or more meters apart, they may as well work a hundred miles apart. Thus, neither open floor plans nor requiring employees to report to an office helps lessen Virtual Distance. Indeed, firms that replace offices with open floor plans often see face-to-face communications drop significantly – by 70% in some cases.
“All human beings need to feel as though they are part of something bigger – and this remains elusive and unfulfilled in the group known today as the virtual workforce.”
For most people and organizations, psychological factors contribute most to Virtual Distance. Since researchers started formally studying the workforce a century ago, the human need for interaction, feedback, and recognition has grown increasingly apparent. Drawn from Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Experiments in the 1920s and Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the 1950s, and beyond, the data reveals that people’s psychological need for meaningful social inclusion and interaction is as potent as their need for physical sustenance and shelter.
Three main types of exclusion and separation increase Virtual Distance: Physical, Organizational, and Affinity.
Unfortunately, workplace culture often starves employees of psychological sustenance. Physical distance facilitates exclusion, but it represents only the smallest part of the problem. The main culprits of Virtual Distance include overreliance on digital communication tools, cultural gaps, and poor leadership practices.
The “Virtual Distance Model” describes the causes of the workforce and stakeholder alienation. The model consists of three components:
- “Physical Distance”: This includes geographical separation, but it also describes differences in time zones and the distance that silos between an organization’s various departments create. According to a Stanford University study, one in five workers worldwide have never met their manager in person. This means people must build trust without traditional go-to’s such as eye contact and non-verbal cues possible only in face-to-face encounters. Yet people do establish trust and rapport virtually. They lower Virtual Distance despite their geographic distance. In many cases, people separated by division, time zone, and physical distance have much lower Virtual Distance than people sitting right next to each other. Like physical distance, opposite time zones can prove difficult though. For example, leaders should balance meeting times to avoid burdening some people with the middle of the night meetings while team members at HQ, for example, always meet during office hours. Work to break down the walls that create collaborative distance between divisions across the organization.
- “Operational Distance”: With or without technology, operational snags often interrupt or downgrade communications. These issues include bandwidth problems on video calls or delays in making technologies work or employees who have no time for meaningful interactions because of their heavy workloads. Colleagues may write unclear and out-of-context emails to one another, or make wrong assumptions about others that cause them to misinterpret their communication. Particularly during online meetings, participants often lack full context, and email proves especially troublesome because it can arrive at any hour, out of the blue, and the recipient has no idea of the sender’s current state of mind. Email responses may come instantly or several days later, again, without context. With several ongoing projects and a heavy workload, people may misread texts or emails, or not read and respond to them at all, especially when Virtual Distance is already high between communicators.
- “Affinity Distance”: Virtual Distance increases less from a physical distance than from Affinity Distance. When leaders overcome the elements of Affinity Distance –cultural, relationship, social, and interdependence distance –they do more to reduce Virtual Distance than lowering either Physical or Operational Distance. Cultural distance doesn’t refer to language or national differences. It occurs when people hold different values, or, more often, when they fail to discover each other’s shared values. Relationship distance shrinks or expands depending on how well people know each other – their historical ties, including mutual friends or associates. People require trust to work well together, and familiarity breeds trust. Social distance increases wherever groups enjoy disparate social status, wealth, and power. Emphasis on hierarchies and rank feeds social distance. Interdependence distance decreases when teams, collaborators, or stakeholders feel like “they’re in the same boat” due to shared goals, common purpose, and the rewards or consequences of their efforts and outcomes.
Multi-industry, combined assessments reveal that Physical Distance accounts for half as much Virtual Distance as Operational Distance, which, in turn, proves only half as critical as Affinity Distance. Affinity Distance has four times more of an effect on organizational success than Physical Distance and is more critical, overall than Physical and Operational Distance combined.
Assess the Virtual Distance within your organization, then make a plan to reverse its effects.
Estimate your firm’s Virtual Distance. Map the connections and various distances between key people and/or teams. Don’t rely on email to gauge meaningful organizational network activity, because people tend to send more emails as Affinity Distance increases. Think about Physical, Organizational, and Affinity Distances. Look for your Critical Relationship Paths: places where even slight improvements can greatly shorten distances. Your analysis may not get everything perfectly right, but the exercise will help you identify real and potential problem areas.
Develop a “Virtual Distance Action Plan” that prioritizes what you aim to improve and how you’ll do it. Start with quick wins by addressing easier fixes across each of the distance types. Leaders should consider the level of effort and payoff for dealing with the issues of Virtual Distance’s three components. Affinity Distance issues should always take priority because they cause the most harm.
Where geographical distance is an issue, simple measures, such as getting on a plane, might solve the problem. Take these quick wins, but remember that solving Physical Distance issues will have less of a long-term effect on overall Virtual Distance, and on your firm’s performance.
Improvements in Operational Distance should take priority over Physical Distance issues. Such changes can include relatively easy measures, such as managing time zone challenges, upgrading technology, and ensuring the right people know how to use it, or longer-term measures, like improving the clarity and frequency of communications.
When lowering Affinity Distance, first consider a trust. Deep, long-lasting trust is difficult to build, thus, you may only achieve shallow and short-term trust. This base level of trust may, nevertheless, suffice for project-based work. Select people who exhibit high trust naturally or even this level of trust may not develop. Otherwise, instill shared values, deliberately connect co-workers beyond social media, and ensure that leaders recognize people for their pro-social behavior.
Today’s teams come together temporarily and remotely, allowing little time for traditional cohesion.
Teams today barely resemble those from decades past. People come together more like jazz ensembles – temporarily – to work on discrete projects. Given the transience of teams, try to ensure that at least some members know each other, or share common interests and social circles.
Where teams work remotely, remember that teleconferencing tools, including video, only work well when the Virtual Distance between the members is low. Make sure that team members share a common understanding of a project’s vision and objectives, otherwise, communication technologies will only drive deeper disconnect.
“Making decisions to bring people back into the same location because it seems like this will predictably improve outcomes is based on an assumption that is not supported by the data.”
Don’t expect to create team cohesion by forcing everyone into a room together. Counterintuitively, putting teams in open-concept work environments often result in less face-to-face interaction. In many cases, separation may actually drive more creativity. To get the best of both worlds, bring teams together physically at the start of a project, if possible, and again when complex issues arise. This allows team members to build relationships and deeper trust.
Adopt a new, “soul-based” leadership style to lessen Virtual Distance.
Organizations require a new form of leadership. Foremost, leaders must communicate clearly and often to overcome the cloak of invisibility. Leaders must strive to humanize work and bring life to organizations through the principles of soul-based leadership. This means encouraging team members to experience each other as real, live humans, even if they never meet face-to face. Leaders must work to ensure virtual workers get to know each other personally. Do this by encouraging personal storytelling, emotion and as much laughter as possible in meetings. Soul-based leaders also emphasize team empathy. They know the importance of having team members who can take each other’s perspectives, and understand differing points of view.
“Soul-Based leaders actively seek out disconfirming information and exercise how to see things from others’ points of view, which then enables them to express empathy more often as they reduce Virtual Distance.”
Leaders should deliberately practice these approaches, both on-the-job and through personal reflection. Quietly conjure scenarios (actual or imagined) and picture yourself acting in those scenarios. Observe your words and behaviors. Consider your thinking. Practice mindfulness. Find a quiet place and practice conscious breathing. Think about how you feel. Practice pausing before you react. Slow down your thinking so that you don’t do or say things reflexively. Shed your leadership bad habits. Use soul-based leadership to stop, reverse and manage Virtual Distance.
About the Authors
Karen Sobel Lojeski leads Virtual Distance International, a research and consulting firm that helps organizations manage Virtual Distance. Professor emeritus Richard R. Reilly taught in the Stevens Institute of Technology School of Business.