Can we manage Virtual distance?

I came across the book “The Power of Virtual Distance: A Guide to Productivity and Happiness in the Age of Remote Work” (Lojeskiof and Reilly,2020), a revised edition with additional research and studies compared to the 1st one, and I got the feeling that it was worth getting it. The title and keywords “productivity and happiness” triggered my curiosity obviously, also considering the contrasting opinions in literature and business writing about virtualisation, F2F and return to work in the office.

(Sobel Lojeski, Karen. The Power of Virtual Distance- 2020-Wiley)

The Virtual system model.

The authors speak about remote work and the growing trend of virtual communications and highlight the aspect of Virtual Distance (VD) within companies (domestically and internationally)..

They describe VD as “a felt sense of distance that grows unconsciously” when people operate through technology-mediated communications. VD is seen as a threat to business results and, according to the authors, corrodes trust, the efficacy of leadership, creativity, performance and workforce engagement. They supply recommendations about 1. recognising the elements of VD: Affinity, Organizational and Physical; 2. assessing what and where the impact of VD is; 3. taking action.

What emerges from this model is that the classic opposition between F2F and Virtual is not so distinct. We need to consider and give more attention to the three elements above, verify their sub-components and the prioritization of each of them in order to have better insights and, possibly, debunk some beliefs about this opposition.

Affinity Distance (AD)

Affinity Distance is the main building block of relationships. This is the part of VD that has a major impact on results because the greater it is, the lower is the cooperation.

If Affinity Distance is low, it can reduce the high Operational and Physical Distance.

Affinity is the glue for holding team members long-term united .being the elements of human relationships.

Affinity distance is created by four elements:

· Cultural Distance

· Interdependence Distance

· Relationship Distance

· Social Distance

Operational distance (Op-D)

Op-D is when people create mental pictures of other people, but they do not match with the reality because they don’t have any or enough information, thus they use their experience, which is not enough to have a “deep perception” of others and situations. Technology also creates issues in having stable communications and creates misunderstandings and incomplete communication flows. There are three elements of Operational distance:

· Communication Distance

· Multi-Load

· Readiness Distance

Physical Distance (PD)

People look for and need social inclusion and less felt separation. According to the authors, relationships and trust can be created virtually, as people do across the world with geographical divisions, “even better than people who work in the same buildings.”

There are three components of Physical Distance:

· Geographic Distance

· Temporal Distance

· Organizational Distance

Physical Distance is then related to the fact others are far off (and for the elements listed above they are). The authors, however, highlight that physical distance doesn’t impact much on VD: we can have a low physical distance and a high VD or, conversely, a high PD and low VD.

Below is a summary of the dynamics of each element:

(Sobel Lojeski, Karen. The Power of Virtual Distance- 2020-Wiley)

Blue: relevant/critical

Black: Important but not critical

From their research and consultancy projects, for each of the dynamics, the authors propose the following solutions:

(Sobel Lojeski, Karen. The Power of Virtual Distance- 2020-Wiley)

Measurement, impact on performances and VD strategy

A quick view of the measurement, based on the research results of the impact on organizational performance of the model and of the strategy to reduce the VD.

1. The measure of Virtual distance shows that affinity is 2 times as large than the operational distance and 4 times the physical one.

(Sobel Lojeski, Karen. The Power of Virtual Distance- 2020-Wiley)

2.. Following their research on the impact of Virtual distance on key performance indicators (KPIs) (see graph below), it can be seen that:

· Physical Distance has minimal or no impact on most of the performances. It emerges that moving people to the same location is not a factor that improves results.

· Affinity has the main impact on performances while Organizational distance is in the second place.

3.. Finally, the proposal to manage VD considers what are the priorities with the focus on sustainability:

(Sobel Lojeski, Karen. The Power of Virtual Distance- 2020-Wiley)

Physical distance represents a temporary fix – easy but temporary.

Operational distance is important for daily operations, but it is a short-term fix; it can also be the starting point to improving affinity.

Affinity distance has a more strategic role, working along with strategy goals, fixes ‘are made to last’ but they take time.

Wrapping up

Virtual distance is a more holistic approach to consider in communications and tasks driven by technology but based on people. “Virtual distance is a psychological and emotional sense of detachment that may result from lack of human interactions or from the loss of the human moment”.

We have seen that if the virtual distance is high, trust between individuals is low, and it creates a lack of shared contexts, learning, ideas, which involves collaboration in the workspace, innovation strategies, skills upgrading and other performances, leading, as a result, to a low engagement and satisfaction.

It seems that research has so far not emphasized enough the links or relations between people and virtualisation. In the graph, VD impacts so many performance indicators too, if we want to consider the implications for the business.

(Notes: for those who are interested in the book, chapters 6 to 9 provide a deeper description and indications for assessments, new virtual teams, virtual distance and technology and virtual distance and innovation.

Thank you for reading.

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