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.

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