Wednesday, 17 July 2013 08:55

A Virtual Distance Primer Part 1

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Think about all of the people you work with. They all have different personalities and life histories. They may have dissimilar skill sets, learning styles and communication preferences. It’s likely they will have diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. They may be members of your own department or part of another functional unit. You may see them every day in an office, or only interact with them through telephone conversations or email.

All of these factors can create psychological distances within teams. These distances may not be important in cases where work can be independently completed by individuals. They can, however, be obstacles to productivity when collaborative team effort is required. Team members can become frustrated and isolate themselves from their peers.

Karen Lojeski coined the term Virtual Distance to describe and measure these psychological effects. She identified three categories of factors underlying Virtual Distance:

  • Physical distance, which reflects different work schedules and status within organizations as well as geographical separation.
  • Operational distance, which is caused by poor communication, multitasking and dissatisfaction with responses to problems. Feelings of isolation caused by concentrations and dispersions of staff also contribute to operational distance.
  • Affinity distance, which reflects how positive or dysfunctional personal relationships among team members might be.

Organizations typically try to overcome Virtual Distance through the use of technology. Lojeski warns this creates a “connectivity paradox”: The more connected people are, the more isolated they feel. She recommends identifying the extent to which each source of Virtual Distance is present in an organization or team and developing strategies to manage and reduce them. Teams have to apply best practices which promote mutual understanding and unify their members in spirit, no matter how different they are.

The use of virtual project teams in which members may be spread across the globe poses special challenges. Project managers now have to promote collaboration among scattered multidisciplinary and multicultural workforces. These challenges received a lot of attention recently as Yahoo announced its decision to eliminate telecommuting. This article is the first of a three part series in which I will explore success factors for virtual and collocated project teams. It’s intended to help project managers guide their organizations beyond the telecommuting debate, and unite their teams to ignite collaboration and innovation.

Don't forget to leave your comments below.

References and Bibliography
Lojeski, K. (2010). Leading the virtual workforce: How great leaders transform organizations in the 21st century. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Lojeski, K. & Reilly R. (2008). Uniting the virtual workforce: Transforming leadership and innovation in the globally integrated enterprise. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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Lawrence Mantrone

Lawrence Mantrone is a management consultant and a professor at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. He has almost twenty years of experience managing information technology projects involving both collocated and virtual teams.  He is a Project Management Professional and a Certified Scrum Master.


0 # Michael Bendit 2013-07-19 10:45
Thoughtful introduction to a very hot topic. Nothing is better for increasing motivation and the resulting productivity than team cohesion and sense of common purpose. This is not always easy to achieve when teams are disbursed geographically, organizationall y, and or culturally. However, global teams are a reality, so teams really do need to address these issue and overcome some of the barriers to becoming and remaining effective.
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0 # Lawrence Mantrone 2013-07-19 11:23
Michael, thanks for your comment. I agree that there's little chance to escape using global teams for all but the smallest organizations. Even in cases where all members of an organization are based in the same location, they are increasingly likely to engage third parties in project work.

While Yahoo eliminated telecommuting, their employees are not all working in the same building. Even now, they are likely to have to execute projects and operational work using staff that aren't collocated.

I think what's even more important is taking steps to optimize the performance of collocated teams. We can't assume throwing everyone into the same building or office will automatically result in a high-performing team. The virtual distance concept is helpful in identifying additional forces and barriers that inhibit the high level of collaboration demanded by more and more projects.
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0 # Centennial 2014-03-01 01:29
I am going through this post and thinking of it’s theme and trying to understand what is this post about. At last I can have found something from this post which feels pretty good.
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0 # Lawrence Mantrone 2014-03-01 11:06
Thanks for the comment! I hope you found the article helpful. Just think of virtual distance as representing anything which can keep two people or a larger group from working together effectively. I've worked on many projects where teams struggled to collaborate for various reasons. Virtual distance can be a way of categorizing the things that divide us, and help us to figure out ways to conquer them.
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