Remote Teams (Part 1): Distance is the new workplace challenge
I have a dream: Distance is a thing of the past in my day-to-day business. I work co-located with my colleagues and we all sit together in the same room. We are not engaged in multiple projects – we can focus entirely on one single common activity. And birds are singing..
The reality often looks different. I’m working in a distributed team. My team members are distributed throughout Germany and we even have colleagues based in Spain. In an ever increasing interconnected world this is no longer a rarity. Today, it rather seems to be a common way how we all work. We can actually benefit in several ways due to this, for example, connecting people from around the world, or our ability to choose the physical workplace from which we can engage with others. However, such (virtual) distances also often create other challenges in our daily work. So let us now take a look on how my dream of reduced distance might actually come true.
Why should we even care about reducing distance in our workplaces? And here I do not mean physical or geographic distance, but rather the mental distance between team members. What Lojeski and Reilly found out and shared in their book Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise sounds simple: Distance has a direct influence on the project success. In other words: A lower distance in workplaces leads to better project results. Why is that exactly? In teams with lower distance you will find a higher level of trust and an increased innovative behavior. People are more interested in helping others and sharing information. As we are human beings with social needs, lower distance makes us feel more comfortable and satisfied.
In this blog series, you will get a brief overview about distance and a guideline how to reduce it in order to improve your projects:
Before we can solve problems caused by distance we first have to understand distance itself. Let us analyze exactly which kind of distances make us feel further apart from one another. Lojeski and Reilly show us three types of distance:
Figure: The Virtual Distance Model Source: Derived from Lojeski & Reilly (2008), p. 48
This kind of distance means all the real aspects separating us from other people. This includes geography and time zones.
Also organizational affiliation can create a sense of separation. For example, I work in projects where some team members work for XY Consumer Research and others work for ABC Consulting. They work together because they are involved in joint projects. These team members are organizationally distant from one another and this automatically increases the distance between them.
Do you sometimes feel like you are on a different playing field to your colleagues? Then you feel the sense of operational distance. For example, if you receive an e-mail from someone and you don’t have a clue what he or she is trying to say. This clearly leads to communication problems.
Also multi-tasking often makes us feel separated from others. Working on many and varied tasks, we feel distant from pretty much everything. Another side-effect neuroscientists discovered some time ago is that multi-tasking, and it’s associated amount of information overloads our brain’s executive function. This is the part responsible for decision making and determining what is meaningful and what can be ignored. We therefore reduce, or worse still lose our decision-making and innovative capabilities. Also not to forget, being constantly “online” through electronic communication totally disrupts us when we are trying to concentrate and work through difficult tasks like problem solving.
We also feel operational distant when things don’t work and there is little or no support or co-operation. For example, what about when you have technical problems during a videoconference or a software demo? This type of interruption takes our minds totally away from the purpose we were intending to focus upon.
Important to know: Operational distance can often be more easily solved by team members or leadership than physical distance. There is a greater scope for possible interventions.
Affinity distance can be defined as the feeling you have when you don’t connect mentally to someone or to a group. For example, different values or cultural backgrounds can cause people to drift apart from another. Also different roles or status levels can generate social distance within an organization. In groups with strict titles and hierarchies you can often perceive a mentality where people say “yes” to everything the “superior” individuals tell them to do.
Affinity distance can also grow when people are not familiar with each other. If they don’t know each other they have no idea how to decrypt sentences and reactions from their counterparts. This especially applies to emails from people we do not know very well. Then we often miss or incorrectly interpret what is being said between the lines. Another example of distance is when individuals of a group don’t believe they are dependent on each other. For example, a team has no common goal or vision. When there is no shared vision people lose motivation and projects suffer. Again this detaches people from one another – not in a physical way but in terms of their mental connection to their team.
The affinity distance can also be understood as the factors which make us all human individuals. These areas actually give us the context we need to develop and cultivate our relationships. Therefore, it is important to reduce affinity distance wherever it occurs.
Now we have introduced the different kinds of distance and provided the basics. However, I no longer want to remain just a dreamer, so let the dream come true: The next step will be to show you ways and possible solutions to minimize and offset such distances.