Make Your Team Stronger by Bridging 'Virtual Distance'

By Joe Mullich  |  Posted 06-16-2005

Make Your Team Stronger by Bridging 'Virtual Distance'

In this era of global partnerships and outsourcing, companies are trying to figure out ways to help virtual teams become more effective. A key step is to reduce "virtual distance"–the mistrust people feel when they communicate primarily through technology rather than face-to-face.

The term was coined and the concept primarily described by Karen Sobel Lojeski, program director for the business and technology program at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

Her research, which we sketched out in our first article on virtual distance, shows that even the productivity of people who are located in the same office can suffer when their primary means of communication are e-mail or instant messaging.

Such methods lack the nonverbal communication and camaraderie that happen almost unconsciously during in-person meetings.

Click here to read the other two parts of this series: Part I: Ending the Emotional Friction of Virtual Teams
and Part III: Four Ways to Make Virtual Teams Work

The exact factors that create virtual distance vary from company to company, and from team to team. Those factors can be broken down into two categories–pre-existing (personal attributes or outlooks that particular people bring to any virtual team) and ingrained (factors that are caused by the characteristics of a particular virtual team). Pre-existing factors are the most difficult to change, but addressing them provides the biggest impact.

Let's look at two ingrained and two pre-existing factors that create virtual distance, and examine how a CIO can begin to change them.

Cultural Values. It doesn't take a degree in psychology to know that people, groups and organizations have different values and communication styles that affect how they work together.

But Lojeski said her research indicates that people often misunderstand what those differences mean to the productivity of global virtual teams. Most people assume that cultural differences are primarily a matter of demographics–that South Asians, for instance, will have different values than Northern Europeans.

In reality, cultural values can vary significantly among team members within the same country, especially in the United States, a country populated almost exclusively by people whose ancestral culture developed somewhere else.

At ISO Properties Inc., a risk-management company, divisions that have been part of the business for a long time tend to be more conservative and need more information to make decisions. People in groups formed by recently acquired companies tend to be entrepreneurial risk-takers.

"We need to appreciate that when we put together teams, so we don't have too many of a certain type of folks," said Roy Nicolosi, CIO and vice president of ISO. "If we are dealing with new technology, we can't have a team where everyone is adverse to risk or nothing will get done."

The first step in addressing cultural values is to understand the perspectives of members of a team. In the past, after an acquisition, ISO would have people from an acquired company come to its facility, often creating in them a greater sense of uneasiness.

"Recently, we've changed this and now we first send our people to their facility," Lojeski said. "We make a great effort to get to know them from the start and don't immediately try to ISO-ize them."

Next page: Expect cultural differences, even within countries.

Expect Cultural Differences


Certainly, a team made up of members from, say, China and the United States should anticipate cultural differences. "It is important at some point to bring in a Chinese person to talk to the American members of the team and vice versa," Lojeski said.

"This is different than a liaison, because the Chinese person would be specifically looking to learn American values in terms of that project and team." This role could be rotated among different members of the team for long projects.

Social Distance. Face-to-face teams often will break down into formal and informal hierarchies based on the status of the people who are on the team. But in virtual teams, that tendency is much more pronounced.

A Java programmer, for instance, might be more likely to challenge the opinions of a vice president during a brainstorming session around a conference table than he or she would in e-mails or other virtual communication, especially if the programmer and the vice president had never met face-to-face.

These complex corporate relationships often leave workers to decide on their own how much they can trust other team members. One executive whom Lojeski surveyed said he didn't even know if he could assess whether he trusted someone or not without at least one in-person meeting.

Bill Hills, vice president of Life Sciences at SAIC, a consulting firm in McLean, Va., said virtual meetings always have a certain tension level when a high-ranking executive is present.

"As soon as the muckety-muck leaves, the conversation becomes more candid," he said. "No matter how much the executive asks people to be open and says there will be no reprisals, people are more wary on phone conferences because they can't see the person's body language."

The first thing team leaders need to appreciate is that team members who are higher up in the corporate food chain will be treated differently. "Leaders need to be aware of people who are in the out group, and they need to be trained to recognize those at high risk for status difference," Lojeski said. Those people might need training to learn to be more open when the situation calls for it.

"In all the companies I've been, I've never seen any training or guidance on how to run virtual meetings in order to address this," Hills said.

Social distance can be magnified by cultural values, as well. In India and some other Asian countries, for example, employees are generally discouraged from challenging a superior. In Japan it's virtually taboo to directly contradict any team member in public. "That can be a problem for Americans, who expect workers to be open and forthright," Lojeski said.

Attention/Contention. The more duties team members have outside the team, the more distant they feel from other team members. The workloads of team members should be considered before putting together virtual teams, and adjusted according to the importance of the teams. The only group in which this did not hold was for program managers, who gain experience and understanding from managing several different teams.

Team Size. As you'd expect, as teams grow in size, the virtual distance increases as well. Some teams in Lojeski's study had more than 100 members, far too many to maintain a close-knit focus. A good number of teams had 30 to 40 members. When teams become too large, Lojeski said, managers should break them into subsets to help maintain trust and hold off virtual distance.

Next Time: The other four factors that create virtual distance–and how to put them together to make teams more productive.