Dealing with virtual distance

A recent Jay Cross post led me to Laleh Shahidi’s post on virtual distance.  In that three-links-out way, she’s discussing a book by Karen Sobel Lojesk, Uniting the Virtual Workforce.

I don’t know Lojesk or her book, but her definition of virtual distance, according to Shahidi, is “the perceived distance between two or more individuals, groups, or organizations that is brought on by the use of electronic versus face-to-face communications.”

This is a useful concept, though I don’t think the “perceived distance” is necessarily brought on by the use of technology.  I don’t think I’ve spent eight hours altogether with my friend and colleague Patti Shank in the ten or twelve years that I’ve known her. Electronic commucations helped reduce the distance between us — but only because we had shared directions to travel.

in other words, distance is as distance does.  “Distant” itself has roots in distare, a Latin verb meaning “to stand part.” From my own experience, you can feel pretty distant from the accounts-receivable folks at the other end of the hall, or those manic sales guys on the third floor.  At the same time, you can feel as though you’re a part of the field staff in Portland.

What kinds of things make for distance?

  • Apparent lack of common interests, needs, or goals.  In organizations, this is the silo mentality.
  • Apparent lack of contact.  If you tend to hang around only with people who have blogs (or only with people who go to happy hour, or only with people who share your political views), then you’re not learning how to hang around with other folks.
  • Physical separation.  Technology or no, if you’ve never worked with someone in another time zone (or in another country, or on another continent), at first it feels… distant.
  • Plain old strangeness.  If the other person (or group) doesn’t do things the way you usually do, doesn’t use the same terms, doesn’t follow the same process — the differences get in the way.

Clearly, technological tools can help reduce the distance, which is what Shahidi and Lojesk are talking about.  Early adopters and techno-bandwagon types  might try restraining their impulses at times — you don’t necessarily want to try linking the training, manufacturing, and sales people through a brand-new wiki embedded in Ning as you launch the product in Germany, Korea, and Canada during the same month.  In that kind of situation, yes, the technology in the short run will increase the virtual distance.

I’m thinking about ways to reduce virtual distance — things like taking your time, listening at least as much as you talk, confirming in non-confrontational ways.  Humor can work, though as a tool it requires more skill than you’d think. Tragedy’s easy; comedy’s hard.

I don’t think most Americans saw the wildly popular I Am Canadian beer commercial, and I’m pretty sure (as a Canadian who grew up in the States) that they’d miss at least some of the subtext.  But, in the spirit of dealing with virtual distance, see what you think: