How Virtual Distance Can Wreak Havoc
April 02, 2008
By Esther Shein
Virtual distance is defined by Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski and Dr. Richard Reilly as a sense a person gets of being psychologically far away from others. The greater virtual distance is among team members, the more problems will occur such as miscommunication, lack of clearly defined roles, and even personal and cultural conflicts.
"Our data shows that when virtual distance is very high, innovative behavior--where people feel comfortable taking risks, putting out new ideas or sharing information that might lead to another breakthrough--drops off significantly," says Sobel Lojeski.
The authors' data shows that as Virtual Distance rises there are some staggering effects. Among them:
- 50% decline in project success (on-time, on-budget delivery)
- 90% drop in innovation effectiveness;
- 80% plummet in work satisfaction;
- 83% fall off in trust; and,
- 65% decrease in role and goal clarity.
However, when Virtual Distance is managed properly, positive results sky-rocket:
- Innovation behaviors increase by 93%;
- Trust improves by 83%;
- Job Satisfaction is better by 80%;
- Role and goal clarity rise by 62%;
- On-time, on-budget performance is better by 50%; and
- Helping behaviors go up by almost 50%
In their new book, Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise, the authors illustrate just how much of an effect distance can have on innovation.
To cite the example of how, in 2004, NASA launched development of the Orbital Boom Sensor System, which was designed to inspect the heat-shielding tiles for damage once each space shuttle was in orbit. The complex project had a strict launch deadline of spring 2005. The NASA team in Houston subcontracted the development of a key piece of equipment, the integrated boom, to a Canadian firm.
But differences in organizational affiliations led to what Sobel Lojeski and Reilly refer to as Organizational Distance, which went unmanaged and remained high throughout the project, resulting in a loss of trust and communication. The Canadian firm fell behind schedule but never let NASA know. Because all of the pieces had to come together at the same time for the shuttle to make the launch date, the result was a project in crisis, the authors say. Fortunately, the problem was resolved through the efforts of a contracting officer who served as a personal liaison or "boundary spanner" between NASA and the Canadian company. His personal relationships with people in both organizations helped to reduce some of the Organizational Distance that had developed and the project was completed on schedule.
What can you do to reduce some of the risks of virtual distance? According to Cisco Product Marketing Manager Jan Sysmans, some important rules of thumb are to set the right expectations for team members; respect time zones and personal time; and deploy the right technology-both in the office and for your remote workers.
Esther Shein is a senior writer for Triangle Publishing Services Co., Inc. of Newton, MA
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