We’ve been hearing a lot about collapsing corporations lately. Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski, author and Professor of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, says Virtual Distance may be to blame for many of today’s corporate problems.
Last night, I heard Dr. Lojeski speak at a lecture sponsored by the Project Management Institute. She has spent the last several years studying the concept of Virtual Distance™, which she defines as “the perceived distance between two or more individuals when their primary method of communication and coordination is not face to face.” Her research shows that our increasing dependence on technology for communication (even with those in the cubicle down the hall) and outmoded vertical corporate structures have led to failures in efficiency, collaboration, engagement, and innovation.
She is not proposing that we outlaw telecommuting, email, and conference calls. Instead, Dr. Lojeski has identified some techniques for minimizing virtual distance within an organization, regardless of the geographic distance between team members. These include building in face time at key points in a project and forcing focus during calls (shut down your email and step away from distractions).
Most importantly, she believes that techniques for managing successful virtual teams must be people-focused, not technology-focused. The technology enables, but there is no innovation without engaged human beings.
I must say that I agree strongly with that philosophy. And because I value the flexibility of being able to work from just about anywhere in the world, I’m a big supporter of any research that will help make remote workers, telecommuters, and road warriors more effective.
Virtual teams are here to stay. And if they are managed well, they can help companies achieve serious business and productivity benefits.
However, I do find that work relationships develop more quickly when I have already met someone in person. That’s not to say that I don’t have close and valued clients and colleagues that I’ve never met face-to-face. I do, but it usually takes a bit longer to bond when you only communicate via phone and email.
Ask any sales guru — they always try to score an in-person pitch meeting because they know it will improve their chances with a prospect exponentially.
So what do you think? Does virtual distance make the heart grow fonder or is it a productivity-killer? Have you found successful techniques for maintaining strong relationships with virtual team members?
For more information about Dr. Lojeski’s research, check out her latest book, Uniting the Virtual Workforce (and look for her upcoming follow-up, Leading the Virtual Workforce, later this year).