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A Virtual Distance Primer Part 1

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.

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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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