I am at ProjectWorld this week, and on the first day I attended a Virtual Workplace forum. We started by defining what “virtual workplace” meant. These definitions include everything from “having no assigned physical desk to work at”, to “any two people working in two different physical locations” to “all vendors”. In this case, the facilitator, Karen Sobel Lojeski, suggested we let it be defined as “any environment where you are using a laptop or PDA to get work done”. The point is that communications are electronic. She explained some common thoughts along the lines of this virtual communication topic. She then went on to explain the “same as me bias”, where when we meet someone new, we assume they are just like ourselves. If we meet face-to-face, then we quickly learn about one another, specifically what communications are working or not. But in electronic communications that s much harder, takes much longer. So with electronic communication, while we are more “connected”, ironically we are actually more “separated” from each other as humans.
Karen explained an interesting study described in “Why Distance Matters: Effects on Cooperation, Persuasion and Deception” by Bradner and Mark, in which groups of people were told either that they were collaborating with people in another country or with people across town. She explained the study demonstrated that people who perceived they were closer to the other people were more collaborative and persuasive. In reality, all of these groups were in the same building. And when using electronic communications, there is a perceived long distance. Furthermore, her research shows innovation, job satisfaction, and role/goal clarity are all negatively impacted by a virtual distance.
I thought it was interesting how she tied this to the election even. Obama was able to take a situation in which he had “physical distance” from his voters, lessen the “operational distance” by matching their communication desires for his messaging (txt, email, etc.). He also lessened the “affinity distance” by making people feel like he was one of them.
So if you have to work virtually, then what? Well she suggests when setting up contracts with vendors, partners, etc. to do work, it is useful to build a “trust building” effort into the contract f the teams will be remote from one another. Her research explains that this connectivity can be measured, so you can plan to reduce t and know if you have reached a productive state as a team.