I once asked a former U.S. Navy admiral in charge of a fleet of aircraft carriers how he felt about collaborating with people through email, computers, smart phones, etc. In response, he told me the following story:
“I would never send a rookie pilot to land a fighter jet on a carrier deck in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean on a new moon. It’s pitch black. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. The pilot has all of his instruments at the ready. He always knows his exact altitude, speed, and distance from the ship. But he doesn’t have the one crucial thing he needs to land safely. He doesn’t have any depth perception. And that’s how I feel when I “talk” to people online — I have no depth perception.”
Like the fighter pilot armed with all the
he would seemingly need to land safely onto the carrier, today’s workforce has more than enough tools to send information back and forth to people all over the world. But those tools — and the use of them — do not necessarily constitute collaboration.
Collaboration implies more than just passing data back and forth in an attempt to develop what is often a non-descript deliverable that can be as forgettable as the interactions themselves. Genuine collaboration is achieved through ongoing meaningful exchanges between people who share a passion and respect for one another. Trading ideas and taking risks on behalf of others and the organization is key. Ultimately, new innovations and critical problem solving are realized through relationships.
However, today’s keyboard-tapping workers have very little context around who their counterparts are, how they feel about things, or what they hope for — in other words, what motivates them. Without a panoramic perspective, it’s difficult to form a sense of common purpose. In fact, when a seemingly intelligent screen is the only frame in sight, people often default to decoding messages based on what they know, filling the contextual void using their own experience to color in the blank backgrounds behind their co-workers. But this can create distorted perceptions about other people’s values and beliefs, causing collaboration conundrums.
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Today’s global workforce is often blind to the bigger picture, other than being able to identify themselves as a dot in a social network map or a box on a bulky org chart. This lack of shared context — between team members and with the business itself — is at the heart of a rapidly growing phenomenon called “virtual distance.”
Virtual distance is a sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow little by little and unconsciously when most encounters and experiences are mediated by screens on smart devices. It’s often assumed that the usual suspects are to blame: physical separation or time zone gaps. But they’re not. Physical distance can certainly add to virtual distance; however, the main issues come through more subtle circumstances.
The virtual distance model is made up of three factors: physical distance, operational distance, and affinity distance. Physical distance is essentially geographic distance. Operational distance builds when there’s a lack of shared context that can produce unwanted noise in the system – such as miscommunications that can irritate people, or technical problems, like your Skype connection failing, or a conference call with a bad connection. Affinity distance comes from a set of ever-flowing undercurrents that can stop deep relationships from taking root. For example, you may not understand what your colleague values in his or her work, and vice versa. Or, you and others may not recognize that you share the same future or fate. This can result in the unintended consequence of avoiding the effort to build richer, longer-lasting relationships, because in the absence of meaningful mutuality, the motivation to do so may never manifest.
My colleagues and I have measured high levels of virtual distance around the world. The data clearly demonstrate that uncontrolled virtual distance can result in unintended and unwanted effects. For example when virtual distance is relatively high:
- Innovative behaviors fall by over 90%
- Trust declines by over 80%
- Cooperative and helping behaviors go down by over 80%
- Role and goal clarity decline by 75%
- Project success drops by over 50%
- Organizational commitment and satisfaction decline by more than 50%
Virtual distance generates a shift in how people feel about themselves, other people, and the way in which they see themselves as part of, or separate from, the larger organizational landscape. In the absence of shared context, the connectivity paradox emerges: the more people are connected, the more isolated they can feel. And isolates among isolates do not collaborate, instead they simply comply with management edicts. But compliance is not the same as collaboration. So, like pilots circling around in the dark, much of today’s workforce is lost in transmission because they don’t want to risk crashing on the carrier deck.
But this doesn’t have to be the case.
To restore true collaboration, leaders must continuously restore shared context. A simple example would be to make sure that all team members know what the local time is for each participant on a call. If it’s late for one member, the leader can acknowledge that whatever to-do list results from the call, they can start it in the morning. Believe it or not, this small thing — bringing the time of day into context and acting accordingly — can help a team member feel respected. It also shows other team members that the manager is compassionate, which makes everyone feel more at ease. Revealing shared context and making appropriate adjustments can have a profound impact on performance.
When leaders learn to lift the veil of virtual distance, people are able to see in others what matters most — what inspires them to act on behalf of others — their mutually shared humanity.
In one organization whose mission was to work on behalf of children’s health, we measured virtual distance and found it to be high on affinity distance – that is, people weren’t forming very good relationships. It’s an interesting case, because all of the employees were in one building, but spread across two floors. Most leadership might assume that because people were “co-located”, there would be no issues with virtual distance. However, it happens with people who sit right next to each other as much as it does between far-flung employees. Once the virtual distance was revealed, the C-level executives took action, putting strategies in place to increase social connections by regularly showcasing team member contributions. For example, senior management publicly recognized one individual’s work that had resulted in helping one of the member hospitals to save a child’s life, tying his efforts directly back to the company’s mission. Recognition came in the form of an email announcement, a newsletter post, and the manager verbally congratulating the team member during a regularly scheduled call. Had it not been for the virtual distance training the manager had enacted, that employee would never have gotten any of the kudos he deserved.
In another example, a virtual distance analysis conducted at a large financial services institution also revealed a high level of affinity distance. This particular problem was traced back to a $3 million dollar loss caused by a significant project delay. To ensure the situation would not happen again, executive management put a process in place to assure that when project teams were formed, they pulled from a diverse group of people, who had never worked together before but were acquainted. These “weak ties” facilitated faster trust formation. This approach also helps employees build wider social networks throughout the organization by reducing virtual distance between individuals and with the business itself from the outset. Projects that used this and other virtual distance heuristics were much more successful than projects that paid little attention to virtual distance dynamics.
Over time, by implementing these and other virtual distance management strategies, this organization reaped significant benefit by reducing virtual distance and increasing financial performance, which led to a rise in stock price and shareholder value.
For leaders, the very first step in reducing virtual distance is to become aware that it’s strongly embedded everywhere screen-based interactions occur — between people sitting side-by-side with thumbs thumping while meeting for lunch or amongst team members scattered across the globe with only a glowing screen to keep them company. To address it, leaders need to develop techno-dexterity, which is the ability to act deliberately when communicating, understanding which message to deliver when and through which channel (face-to-face, phone, email, video, etc.). For example, you would never fire someone by video chat, though it may sometimes be appropriate to meet a new client that way. Before you send a message, you should always ask yourself: “What do I want the receiver to do after I convey this message?” If you realize you just need a simple reply, then email may be best. If, on the other hand, you want a more detailed explanation, it’s probably better (and faster) to get that via phone. By thinking about the who, what, when, where, and how of messaging and by including how much context the other person might need to fully understand your message, you will reduce virtual distance and improve performance.
To establish closer confidences that fuel genuine collaboration, leaders need to reduce virtual distance and stimulate a shared sense that everyone is in the same boat — or at the very least — that there even is a boat.