Businesspeople today can communicate and collaborate in many different ways: email, text, enterprise social platforms, public social networks, Web conferencing … the list goes on and on. And on. But notice that each of these platforms has at least a couple of screens in between the users. A great piece in the Harvard Business Review examines the effects this “virtual distance” has on the effectiveness of collaboration in the workplace.
Written by Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, an assistant professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, the article notes that new innovations and critical problem solving are realized through relationships. The problem, she notes, is that the screens employees collaborate behind hide context, creating virtual distance. This sense of psychological and emotional detachment grows gradually when most encounters and experiences are mediated by screens.
“Without a panoramic perspective, it’s difficult to form a sense of common purpose,” she wrote. “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.”
Many people believe that virtual distance is caused by physical distance, but it’s more complicated than that, noted Sobel-Lojeski in the article.
The virtual distance model is made up of three factors, she said:
- Physical distance is geographic distance.
- Operational distance builds when there’s a lack of shared context that can produce unwanted noise in the system, such as miscommunications or technical problems.
- Affinity distance comes from misunderstanding, such as not recognizing what colleagues’ value.
With companies investing so many resources in enterprise collaboration platforms like SharePoint, virtual distance can cost real dollars and real opportunities. So, how can companies reduce virtual distance and increase the effectiveness with which employees collaborate—screens or no?
It all comes down to restoring that shared context, wrote Sobel-Lojeski.
“To restore true collaboration, leaders must continuously restore shared context,” she said. “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.”
Sobel-Lojeski recommends that business leaders take the following steps to build shared context:
- Recognize that virtual distance is “strongly embedded” any time that screen-based collaboration occurs.
- Develop techno-dexterity, or the ability to act deliberately when communicating (such as deciding when it is best to use a phone call vs. an email vs. a fave-to-face meeting).
- Before sending a message, ask, "What do I want the receiver to do after I convey this message?”
- Stimulate a shared sense that everyone is in the same boat
How is your workplace faring when it comes to shared context? Please let us know in the comments section below.