With telecommuting more common, a new book explores ways to help corporate teams overcome the psychological hurdles of remote electronic communications
Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise by Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly John Wiley & Sons; 203pp; $29.95
It's 3 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, and my local San Francisco coffeehouse is packed. It's a sea of open laptops, with nearly all the people wearing headphones as they type away. Located about a block from the famed intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets, this hippie coffee shop seems an unlikely place to do work: The baristas have more tattoos and piercings than you'll typically find at Starbucks (SBUX), but the place has good coffee, free Wi-Fi, and plenty of power outlets—a holy trinity for people like me. You see, I'm a member of that growing army of people who telecommute or work virtually, so to speak.
In addition to enabling us to work nearly anywhere, technology has ostensibly made it easier for corporations to operate globally, with teams of far-flung workers collaborating daily. Yet even with the growing number of tools they can use to communicate anytime and anywhere, many remote workers struggle with the psychological distance that comes from an overreliance on electronic interaction, according to Uniting the Virtual Workforce, a new book by Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly.
The authors coin a term, "virtual distance," to refer to the feelings of separation engendered by communicating by e-mail, instant messaging, audio conferencing, and other tools. If you've ever had a misunderstanding with a colleague via e-mail, you've experienced virtual distance. But more than just making people feel bad, the authors say, this virtual distance can be a serious problem that inhibits collaboration, impedes innovation, diminishes employee satisfaction, and hurts the bottom line.
No Shared Context
Lojeski and Reilly cite an insurance company that lost $3 million on one project alone because of issues surrounding virtual work. Some companies, including Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), have even asked that information technology workers begin working in corporate offices again. Yet the authors argue that recalling workers to the office won't necessarily solve the problem. That's because physical distance is only partly to blame. Virtual distance can also entail operational distance, where there's no shared context among workers in different departments. Or it can involve what the authors call "affinity distance," which are marked differences in workers' value systems or social behaviors.
For instance, when I was freelancing several years ago in Pittsburgh, I wrote articles for a Phoenix trade magazine whose editor was located in Washington. I never once spoke to my editor in person or on the phone. All of our communication was by e-mail. The virtual distance was substantial, but not merely because we were located in different states. Operationally, I'd never worked with an editor who didn't ask a single question about my stories or give me any feedback, ever. And the affinity distance was enormous, as I knew absolutely nothing about this man, including his past work experience, what he looked like, or if he had a family.
Yet, the authors say virtual distance can be managed, offering tips to map out where it might exist in your organization and strategies for managing it. For starters, Lojeski and Reilly stress that face-to-face meetings are most crucial when first getting a project off the ground, when there are major hitches that need to be discussed openly, and when presenting results to clients. Other suggestions include issuing an e-mail etiquette guide for the team so that everyone, regardless of age or culture, can better manage expectations.
Photos Beside the Phone
One case study in the book describes how Karan Sorensen, chief information officer for Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) pharmaceutical research & development, took such steps to manage virtual distance during a global infrastructure project. Sorensen first brought the group together for a face-to-face meeting so that team members could get to know one another. Early on, they set up rules of engagement, such as how each individual liked to communicate best, to address cultural differences. On conference calls, the staff kept photos of everyone by the phone, and Sorensen made sure to alternate call times so that certain people weren't always stuck dialing in at midnight. By getting her team to collaborate better, Sorensen completed the project under budget and well ahead of deadline, saving J&J more than $200 million over three years.
Case studies like these are where this book shines, and it could have benefited from more, especially in Chapter 2, where the authors spend about 25 pages defining their three components of virtual distance. The pace picks up in the second half, delivering strategies to overcome virtual distance and an interesting chapter on how to best innovate with a virtual workforce. All told, the authors provide solid advice and a good starting point for managers who want to figure out why their virtual teams aren't communicating well or aren't delivering strong results. Judging from the crowds who showed up to hear Lojeski speak on a recent trip to Silicon Valley, there are plenty of companies grappling with these issues.
As for me, I'm lucky now to work with an editor who manages virtual distance well. With some well-timed face-to-face meetings, a few phone calls per week, and plenty of e-mail messages, we've managed to work well together for nearly two years. I know what he looks like, his professional history, and the names of his children. And I now get plenty of feedback and questions on my stories, some of which I answer from my favorite perch in my local coffeehouse.