Remote Teams Don't Have To Suffer From Virtual Distance

Last Updated Mar 5, 2011 1:42 PM EST

Remote working is a fact of life. If you don't have permanent team members who are somewhere else, you have tried to work with someone in a hotel room, airport bar or satellite office. And it's easy to blame communication and work failures on the fact that you're remote. So why do some remote teams manage to work at a high level and teams that aren't as wide-spread fail miserably? It's not the physical distance, it's the "Virtual Distance".

I love it when people smarter than me (a lengthy list, to be sure) are able to put names to things that we know to be true but don't know what to call them. In this case, Dr Karen Sobel Lojeski has nailed it. She's a professor at SUNY Stonybrook, and the CEO of Virtual Distance International. She's also the author of Leading the Virtual Workforce--How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century.
We know that teams function when there's trust, communication and shared context for the work. It's not easy to do this remotely, but it's obviously possible (since some teams manage to pull it off). It also explains why even co-located teams can act like the members are on different planets.

This isn't soft and mushy stuff. Her research shows a 90% difference in innovation between highly functioning remote teams and those that suffer from virtual distance. Project failure rates are also consistently lower in those teams that can bridge the gaps effectively.

Virtual distance has three components to be overcome:
  1. Physical Distance is the fact that you're in one place and I'm in another and we have to work together. There's not a lot you can do about the fact that the distance exists, (barring changes in budget and the time/space continuum) but it can be addressed. This is actually the least of the challenges for great teams.
  2. Operational Distance is the processes and the way you work that either help teams collaborate or conspires to keep them at a distance. Technology is obviously one way to bridge this gap...but what tools are you using? Are managers using the right tool at the right time in order to create the context and help teams really communicate and not just transfer data? Managing by email alone, for example, doesn't help teams develop the context they need to anticipate each others' needs or know when there's trouble on the horizon. When you make it difficult for people to really work collaboratively, you're going to sow the seeds for trouble down the road.
  3. Affinity Distance is the real difference between great teams and those that don't work together well. Affinity is how connected you are emotionally and mentally to your teammates. Do you know each other as people? Do you trust each other? Do you feel like part of the same team and share common goals? If you do, you'll be motivated to overcome the merely physical and operational barriers to working together. If you're not, all the cool tech in the world won't help you meet that deadline.
It's important to recognize that affinity distance doesn't require physical distance at all. If you have that coworker who only communicates via email, even when they sit two desks away, that's not a physical problem, that's a connection and person-to-person problem.

The effective manager not only pays attention to the obvious distance between team members, but to the emotional and engagement gaps that can really disrupt your efforts to make that deadline or even simply make the work less miserable for all concerned.

Hear a full interview with Karen Sobel Lojeski on the Cranky Middle Manager podcast here.
Read more: photo by flickr user andrew and hobbes CC 2.0