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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.”)
In her work, all of these factors were measured and plotted, allowing managers to determine whether a team was vulnerable to problems and, more importantly, where those problems were likely to arise. For example, a team at a large financial services firm in her study displayed medium-high physical distance, low medium operational distance, but high affinity distance, indicating potential issues there. For the teams that I worked on right after business school, we might have had high physical distance but low operational and affinity distance, which defined our working relationship and ultimately our success. Sobel-Lojeski’s plots are like a patient’s medical history — with blood results, cholesterol numbers, x-rays, and so on. Just as doctors use such medical information to assess a patient’s risk of heart disease, managers can use “virtual distance” data to predict whether a team is likely to fall short of its goals.
What’s the cost of such failures? Sobel-Lojeski has done a quantitative analysis, and her results are eye-opening. Teams that have high virtual distance suffer a 90% drop in innovation effectiveness, more than 80% plunge in trust, and 60% decline in finishing projects on time and within budget, among other negative effects. To avoid such costly problems, here are a few best practices we have culled from a number of primary and secondary sources, including our own work in this space, coaching high-impact teams at Reuters, General Motors, Lincoln Financial Group, Ebay, and many other companies.
Don’t overestimate the effects of physical distance. Co-located teams can have a much higher virtual distance than those that are dispersed. People who have worked on numerous teams of different types will probably not find that result surprising. But here’s where it gets really interesting. Sobel-Lojeski found that, by
far, affinity distance (and not physical or operational distance) has the greatest effect on innovation, trust, learning, and other team outcomes.
Avoid being penny-wise but pound-foolish. Many companies have slashed their travel budgets, especially given the current economic downturn. But that might be penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to teams with a high virtual distance. For such teams, a company needs to consider investing in measures that will help decrease the virtual distance – for example, spending $40,000 for face-to-face meetings during critical junctions of a project. Otherwise, the total cost to the company could be far greater in terms of missed deadlines, budget overruns, lost market opportunities, and so on.
Go for the low-hanging fruit. Shortening the affinity distance of a team will have the greatest long-term effect, but it is also perceived as the most challenging to accomplish. We have proven that simple storytelling among members has a significant impact on the group’s affinity, along with a continual personal and
professional check-in process we call “Take 5” at the beginning of meetings. Sobel-Lojeski also suggests that managers consider the quick fix of shortening the operational distance, which might have a more temporary effect but is relatively easy to address. For example, a company could free up team members from competing commitments (at least temporarily) and provide ample training and support for the latest online collaboration tools. We have found that even the use of videoconferencing can yield significant results.
Leverage small changes into large effects. When trying to shorten a team’s affinity distance, even small actions can resonate into large differences. If a team includes a diverse mix of cultures and backgrounds, for example, the team leader could start off the project by assigning small tasks to pairs of people who are the most dissimilar. In one study, a manager who used that technique later reported:
“The virtual bonding that took place within the pairs…seemed to endure and carry over to the full team, contributing to greater collaboration and team cohesiveness.”
Albert Einstein once said, “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” In other words, understanding a problem is the key to solving it. The concept of “virtual distance” helps us to understand the problems of virtual
and co-located teams. It provides three useful categories (physical distance, operational distance, and affinity distance) to classify the various factors that can hinder co-workers from connecting and collaborating with one other. And, as a general framework, it helps explain why team members who are co-located can, in effect, be thousands of miles apart. I suspect we can all attest to that.