Measuring Virtual Distance

Collaboration across cultures and time zones can raise a host of issues about the way people work together, but sometimes the more obvious problems can mask other, more insidious stumbling blocks to productivity. And some of these problems are just as likely to happen close to home.

That’s the conclusion of Karen Sobel Lojeski, CEO of New York City-based consultancy Virtual Distance International. She says she can quantify the factors that impede collaboration around the world, or even around the corner. Most organizations, she says, have not adjusted their management practices to the networked, team-oriented workplace that is common today. “Formerly soft issues, like social and cultural differences, have become much more important to consider in a direct way,” she says.

A veteran of almost two decades on Wall Street before going to graduate school and hanging out her consulting shingle, Lojeski says she noticed that workers seem increasingly disconnected, even as technology makes it easier for them to communicate in real time.

She calls the hazards inherent to collaborative work “Virtual Risk,” and measures it by a system she calls “Virtual Distance.” Lojeski has the particulars of nearly 400 real-life cases, and she used the concepts of Virtual Risk and Virtual Distance as the basis of her Ph.D. thesis. “It is an index that lets us calculate the extent to which these issues exist and make a difference,” she says.

Companies are scored on 11 factors. Three of them involve “real” or “actual” distance, including geographic distance, time zone differences, and organizational differences between different companies. The other eight factors are softer, including cultural differences, social factors, relationships and work histories, goal and role interdependence, technical skill, amount of multitasking, team size, and mix of face-to-face interaction versus phone, video, etc.

Lojeski’s research shows that differences in language and locality matter, but not as much as differences in communication style and work ethic. “Teams with high scores on Virtual Distance—more Virtual Distance—were quantifiably less successful, had relatively poor leader effectiveness and demonstrated less innovative behavior.”

What surprised Lojeski as she documented this phenomenon was its prevalence among teams in the same city, or building. “I started out assuming that geography was a necessary feature, but you can have just as high a rate of Virtual Distance among colocated workers as distributed people,” she says. By analyzing the metrics that predict these gaps, and training workers to commu-nicate effectively, companies can make collaboration more productive.

“Acknowledging it is the first step, then adding skills as leaders and organizations to deal with it,” she says.

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