A number of years ago, I worked on an executive team in which everyone was located in the same building but people seemed frustratingly far apart. Yet at my first job out of business school, I worked on a number of teams in which we were scattered across the globe but I felt closely connected with those individuals. What accounts for such huge, seemingly counterintuitive differences?
One model that explains the disconnect comes from some interesting research by Karen Sobel-Lojeski at Stony Brook University. From her research studying more than 600 teams, she has developed a new concept — called “virtual distance”— that measures the perceived isolation of members in a team that relies on electronic communications. Three categories of different factors determine virtual distance:
1. Physical distance: the geographic separation of the members (including differences in time zones) and whether everyone works for the same company or for multiple organizations.
2. Operational distance: the type and quality of communications (whether, for instance, the team is able to meet face-to-face at crucial junctures of a project), the outside demands of members (whether they are also working on other projects), their technological fluency (how comfortable they are with using virtual tools such as online collaborate software, and the availability of technical support), and the member distribution (the degree to which the team has a centralized location versus being scattered across numerous sites).
3. Affinity distance: the cultural differences and communication styles of members, their disparity in hierarchical status in the organization (and whether their contributions are acknowledged), their past familiarity with each other, and their interdependence (whether they have a sense of “shared future and fate.”)
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