Virtual Distance - Relational Development at Work

Nowadays, remote working is becoming common place, with employees conducting their work duties from their home base, coming into the office for meetings, and connecting by e-mail & phone very much on the move. As a result, we are more spread out at work and communications are increasingly fragmented. To keep energy and meaning in our business, we have to work harder in our new virtual relationships.

Similarly, in office-based teams, communication by e-mail and driving individual global responsibilities is becoming the norm, leaving little time for important conversations and risking impersonal, rushed exchanges. Face to face meetings about the things that matter with colleagues down the corridor are often things of the past. The feeling of office isolation is growing, and whilst we’re moving on with personal objectives, our relationships can be suffering.

The concept of ‘Virtual Distance’ (Sobel-Lojeski, 2006) neatly explains the dynamics behind this felt isolation and offers some valuable solutions. From research on over 600 teams, Sobel-Lojeski contends that the 3 factors influencing virtual distance are:-

1) Physical Distance – how far apart the team are geographically (e.g. different timezones), and organisationally (e.g. different organisations)

2) Operational Distance – how far apart the team are operating in terms of projects (e.g. on different projects), meetings (e.g. face to face, regular etc), online communications (e.g. video conferencing, collaboration software), and the presence (or not) of a central location in which to convene.

3) Affinity Distance – how far apart the team are in terms of culture, communication style, value systems, past familiarity (how well they know each other), hierarchical status (same level or not), and their felt interdependence (shared sense of future or fate).

From her research, Sobel-Lojeski found that teams scoring high on all of the above distances were vulnerable to, and indeed encountered, significant problems in their business activities. High virtual distance teams risk a 90% drop in innovation effectiveness, an 80% decline in trust and a 60% reduction in projects completed on time and in budget, when compared with teams showing low virtual distance. With low virtual distance teams carrying such a huge commercial advantage, we need to know how to recreate these valuable connections.

Sobel-Lojeski discovered that affinity distance has the greatest overall effect on innovation, trust and learning, so improvements here can mean that the team is on to a sure winner. Affinity distance is reduced through investment in travel to allow face to face meetings, and engaging in potent team development processes for critical teams or projects. Significant advances in human connection can also be made with the process of ‘checking in’ at the beginning of meetings, whether face to face, online or by video  - effectively giving taking time to talk about the things that are mattering to people for a set period, and building the agenda based on the emergent topics.

Reducing operational distance can be a ‘quick fix’ through freeing up members from competing commitments in their roles, by making strategic and regular use of online collaboration tools and videoconferencing and by defining a central project/meeting hub.

In this competitive global business world, physical distance between co-workers looks like it’s a given, so we know we need to work harder on reducing the operational and affinity distances within our teams. The key is personal understanding – getting to really know each other – spending time and space together, to talk about the things important to us and our priority work projects. Investing here will generate the strong connections, productive collaborations and vital team energy that deliver business success – which is so worth it!



Sobel-Lojeski, 2006 -