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Leading the Dispersed Workforce PUBLIC ACCESS

When it Comes to the Distances that Can Separate Virtual Teams, Geography is Only the Beginning.

[+] Author Notes

Richard R. Reilly is Emeritus Professor in the Howe School of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Karen Sobel Lojeski is a professor in the Department of Technology and Society at the State University of New York. Stony Brook.

Mechanical Engineering 131(11), 30-34 (Nov 01, 2009) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2009-NOV-2

This review explains the concept of virtual distance and its increasing usage in the research and development field. Virtual distance occurs when individuals work together and communicate primarily through electronic media. After five years of research, results show that virtual distance is not about geographic distance alone. Instead, it has three major components: physical distance involving differences in space, time, and environment; operational distance including the psychological gaps that arise from day-to-day problems in the workplace; and affinity distance embodying the emotional disconnects among virtual team members who have no relationship with one another. The review also discusses that Techno- dexterity, boundary breaking, globalization, and authenticity are four key competencies effective leaders use to manage virtual distance. It also illustrates the concept of coactivating leaders, which emphasize not only global experience but also the ability to bond with and understand diverse cultures. They also use both forward and reverse mentoring to both teach and learn from their employees.

NASA's Space Shuttle program had a problem, yet no one at NASA knew. It was the type of problem that is becoming increasingly common in large organizations. Many of NASA's systems projects rely on an extensive network of project teams, contractors, and subcontractors. Many of the relationships between NASA leadership and key players are mostly or completely virtual.

In 2004, NASA launched a project to develop the Orbital Boom Sensor System to inspect Space Shuttle. tiles during orbit. The project had a strict, hard deadline–a spring 2005 launch–and involved the development of a number of key subsystems.

One of the subsystems, the integrated boom, was subcontracted to a Canadian firm. Because most communication between NASA leaders in Houston and the engineers in Toronto was virtual, it was not apparent that the project had fallen seriously behind schedule. The Canadian firm, thinking it could catch up, never let NASA know where things stood.

It finally became clear that the Canadian firm was not going to meet its deadline. Because all the project's components had to come together at the same time for the Shuttle to make its launch date, the result was a project in cnisis.

This incident is typical of the types of problems caused when people and organizations communicate mostly or solely through electronic technology. Today's telecommunications make it easier than ever to share complex information instantaneously. It is easy for managers to think this enables them to manage a project, a team, or a business.

Yet the same telecommunications used to share information also makes it easy to lose touch with the people the other end of those e-mails.ltis easier than ever to make assumptions about what coworkers understand or how they will approach a task. We call this problem "virtual distance," and engineering leaders are going to have to learn how to manage it.

Virtual distance occurs when individuals work together and communicate primarily through electronic media. After five years of research, we find that virtual distance is not about geographic distance alone. Instead, it has three major components

  • Physical distance involves differences in space, time, and environment.

  • Operational distance includes the psychological gaps that arise from day-to-day problems in the workplace.

  • Affinity distance embodies the emotional disconnects among virtual team members who have no relationship with one ilnother.

Most virtual team leaders zero in on physical distance because it looks like the sole problem: team members feel far away because, for the most part, they really are. Yet physical distance is more complex than location alone. It also encompasses differences in time zones and organizational structure.

Physical distance was part of the problem at NASA. The leadership was in Houston; the subcontractor, in Tor6nto. When teams are far apart, they tend to interact less, and when they communicate, it's usually through e-mail. This creates a sense of remoteness.

In addition to space and time differences, the two organizations differed in terms of history, structure, and organizational culture. All the elements of physical distance were present and contributed to overall virtual distance. Yet operational and affinity distance played a much greater role than physical distance in the crisis.

If you ever had a "conference call from hell" and wondered whether you lived on the same planet as the people on the other end, then you understand operational distance. It is the lack of connection between you and your counterpart in daily conversations.

There are many reasons for it. In the past, strong teams shared a location. If an e-mail was not clear or a hard drive broke down or someone was overwhelmed by deadlines, a team member could walk over to the manager and discuss it.

In virtual teams, those few simple steps are harder to take. The lone project member in Bhopal, India, may fed isolated when the rest of the project team is in San Francisco or Beijing. Multitasking and conflicting deadlines may overwhelm an engineer, who then responds more quickly to requests from people down the hall than from others across the country. Communications distance grows when e-mail is overused, abused, or simply relied on for all communications. Technical issues sometimes interrupt the flow of information, leaving unnoticed gaps.

People respond to operational distance by mentally shutting others out as they try to make their way through harried and sometimes difficult days. Most of the time, operational distance intensifies without conscious awareness. Yet, of the three components that contribute to virtual distance, operational distance is the most easily controlled by an alert and skilled leader.

Many of these problems played out at NASA. Team leaders were managing multiple projects, all of which had a hard deadline. Most of the team was centered in Houston, isolating role players on the periphery. Because managers favored electronic communications, they could not read the clues that they might have noticed during site visits or even through phone calls.

Our research indicates that the most important source of virtual distance is the lack of personal and social relationships among coworkers. We call this affinity distance. It is a product of shared culture, social distance within organizations, relationships, and interdependence.

Cultural differences often show up as differences in communication styles and values, and grow out of mismatches in worldview, work ethic, and other values. Social distance intensifies when formal organizational status is overemphasized at the expense of teamwork and common purpose. Relationship distance escalates when team members have little or no shared history, friends, or acquaintances. This makes it hard to trust or be trusted by other team members.

Mutual interdependence is also very important. Effective teams share a vision, a mission, and an understanding of how team members will carry out their interconnected tasks. Problems often arise when distance workers fail to see how their tasks fit into the big picture.

These four factors-values, social behaviors, shared experience, and mutual interdependence-provide the context in which we develop and retain relationships. They are the glue that holds functional and fruitful teams together.

Both NASA and its Canadian subcontractor shared strong affmities within their organizations. Unfortunately, those ties did not exist between the two organizations because their leaders had not taken the time to establish inter-partner affinity.

When a message has a lot of data, e-mail can be the right choice. When it needs to communicate emotion, a face-to-face meeting works better.

Our initial book, Uniting the Virtual Workforce, detailed the phenomena of virtual distance. Our latest work, Leading the Virtual Workforce, focuses on how to manage it. Based on extensive interviews with some of the most successful leaders of today's virtual, global organizations, we identified important skills that effective leaders have used to minimize virtual distance.

We have developed a virtual distance leadership model, which identifies and details the key competencies and actions critical for today's virtual workforce leadership. The most important competencies are what we call techno-dexterity, traversing boundaries, glocalization, and authenticity.

Techno- dexterity refers to the ability that successful leaders have to match the right technology with the right message so it has the most impact. They know when to use e-mail, video conferencing, or phone c;onferencing, and when face-to-face meetings are essential.

When a message has a lot of data, e-mail can be the right choice. When it needs to communicate emotion, a face-to-face meeting works better.

A few leaders use video conferencing for regular core team meetings. Others rely on personal blogs and social networking sites that encourage feedback to communicate with employees, partners, customers, and the public. Some have even experimented with meetings in virtual worlds such as Second Life.

Traversing boundaries is the bridging of the differences that contribute to virtual distance. Boundaries arise for a variety of causes, ranging from dissimilar culture and organizational structure to gaps in age, tenure, and experience. I(not managed properly, boundaries can create an "us vs.. them" mentality.

Today's leaders have to be able to cross many dividing lines to bring virtual teams together. Phil McKinney, a VP at Hewlett-Packard, uses something he calls reverse mentoring, spending time with his company's college interns to understand what motivates them and how they work.

Most leaders prefer to deal with technological and market uncertainty but retain their hierarchical roles. To transcend boundaries, they should force themselves out of their comfort zone and face social situations that are often difficult to predict or control.

Glocalization requires that a manager keep the big world and the immediate community both in foc us. Successful leaders "think global but act local" when managing their workforces. They recognize that people live and work within the context of their communities and cultures, yet must somehow be willing and able to act on behalf of a worldwide mission.

To motivate employees, leaders need to communicate glocally, sending messages and employing work practices that speak to both the local culture and the global effort. They need to translate from local to global and back again as needed.

Authenticity takes a little talent, some practice, and unrelenting commitment to oneself and the virtual workforce. After all, it's one thing to exude genuineness when one is face to face with others. It's another thing to demonstrate authenticity through virtual channels.

Transparency goes hand in hand with authenticity. Those in authority must be willing to share information that mayor may not be seen as favorable. Bill George, former Medtronic chairman and the author of Authentic Leadership, said that workers want inspiration. "People are too well informed to adhere to a set of rules or to simply follow a leader over a distant hill," he wrote. This is especially true during this economic downturn, when so many leaders have been discredited and employees fear for their jobs. While information technology makes employees better informed than ever, they also know that much is still hidden from them. Combine this with reports of leaders gone bad and it creates a sense of pervasive distrust. To overcome this, leaders must not only communicate authentically, they must also make public the information that their virtual workforce needs to know if they are to earn and keep their team members' trust.

Techno- dexterity, boundary breaking, glocalization, and authenticity are four key competencies effective leaders use to manage virtual distance. We believe these competencies support three key actions that are essential for effective leadership: creating context, cultivating community, and co-activating new leaders.

Virtual distance often leads to communication breakdowns because leaders fail to create a commonly shared vision, mission, inspiration, and enthusiasm. Such shared context is like air in traditional work settings, barely noticeable because it is everywhere. Leaders and followers sit and work together. They are surrounded by peers who have bought into the message. Their shared mental models are apparent in informal conversation, and in such social cues as knowing where people live and their affiliations outside of work.

Researchers have consistently found that the members of high-performing teams see things through the same lens. That is not always the case in the virtual workforce, where shared context is often lost amid the intensive eye contact with screens instead of with other human beings.

We found the best distance leaders establish and promote context by.

Viewing context as a continuous process and using every meeting-face-to-face or virtual-to repeatedly reinforce vision, mission, and goals.

• Encouraging perspective-sharing. This is particularly important when multiple disciplines and cultures are represented in a project. Asking others to state how they understand an issue enables all team members to better understand one another's values and style.

• Serving as constant anchors when priorities, situations, and other factors change. Effective leaders act as the stable, familiar voice and face of the project.

Creating context reduces the impact of physical distance, and reduces operational distance by illuminating others' perspectives. Common context also lessens affinity distance by fostering a more closely shared set of values and allowing stronger relationships to emerge as understanding grows between culturally distinct groups.

Cultivating community encourages engagement. Traditional notions of community are changing as communications and relationships move increasingly online. Successful leaders that we spoke with all have the capacity to build and maintain communities of individuals who are motivated to go beyond their prescribed roles and engage in "organizational citizenship." This includes mentoring others, serving as technical resources, and taking on special projects.

The people in these leader-inspired communities have several characteristics. First, they are cooperative. They go beyond gathering information and learning to initiate actions for the betterment of the organization. They are also constructive, finding ways to positively add to the greater good. And they are committed to the community and help build and maintain it.

These living communities reduce the impact of physical distance by enabling greater interaction between employees and other community members. Operationally, their rich communications reduce the sense ofloneliness that isolated workers sometimes feel. Even more important, they help build a common set of norms and values, as well as direct and indirect relationships.

Co-activating new leaders is the process by which team members become influencers. The term "shared leadership" is often used when discussing virtual teams. The notion is that because teams are geographically distributed, most or all of the team members play a role in leadership.

Our data tell us that great leaders go beyond shared leadership and engage in what we call co-activating leadership. These leaders seed virtual employees with the knowledge and skills that enable them to be leaders themselves. Co-activating leaders emphasize not only global experience, but the ability to bond with and understand different cultures. They also use both forward and reverse mentoring to both teach and learn from their employees.

Co-activing leaders reduce the impact of physical distance by encouraging new and emerging leaders to take on leadership roles. Affinity distance is reduced by developing a greater understanding of cultural values and styles and by deemphasizing formal status. Operational distance is reduced by building a social network with embedded leadership to support and communicate with employees regardless oflocation.

Relying on old models alone, built using outdated assumptions that no longer apply, is not going to work.

New leadership models are scarce. In fact, it's easy and comfortable to say that we need the same kinds ofleader behaviors, personalities, and situational positioning in the virtual workforce as we do in the traditional workforce.

In part, that's true. We are not arguing that these models are completely irrelevant. We are, however, saying that relying on old models alone, built using outdated assumptions that no longer apply, is not going to work any better for us than it did for NASA or anyone of the thousands of organizations with virtual workers around the country or around the globe.

Those workers cQme to the job with different perspectives, values, cultures, and skills. The virtual distance leader pulls these people together across virtual landscapes, fostering a sense of hope and a shared responsibility for creating a brighter and more solid foundation for the future.

Copyright © 2009 by ASME
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