Anca Metiu, Professor of Management at ESSEC Business School, explores the question of whether virtual teams can achieve great results despite their distance.
The act of communicating with someone – whether through email, over the phone, or face to face – is laden with highly symbolic meaning that is often rich and multilayered. Because communication is so symbolic, research has shown that we can develop a sense of “symbolic proximity” even when we’re objectively far apart.
Technologies like instant messaging, video conferencing and remote access have changed the way we work. Not only are we increasingly likely to telecommute from home or from multiple locations outside the office, we’re also more likely to work with offsite colleagues or within virtual teams. But are our long-distance work relationships as strong or productive as the relationships we cultivate at the office and around the water cooler?
On the one hand, age-old wisdom and a solid stream of prior researchers tells us that close physical proximity is an essential ingredient to forging interpersonal links in both social and professional settings. On the other hand, some researchers have argued that new technologies may be changing the very meaning of distance and collaboration.
With co-authors Michael Boyer O’Leary (Georgetown University) and Jeanne M. Wilson (Mason School of Business), our research bolsters a small stream of existing research that has shown how people can form strong bonds despite being separated by large distances. We look at how feelings of closeness and shared identity are forged between both collocated and geographically dispersed teams by undertaking not only a quantitative analysis of how often people communicated, what media they used, and how similar they are, but also a qualitative analysis of how they convey (or undermine) a sense of proximity to their colleagues.
The quality of working relationships depends on how close you “feel”
Symbolic proximity is generally conveyed between distant colleagues as they share personal or informal information. An employee in Paris, for example, might discover that they have similar interests or belongs to a similar social category as their colleague in Texas. Through working together, these colleagues may develop a common pool of jointly lived experiences and actions and the emails and other exchanges they share may convey a commitment to shared work goals and demonstrate dependability. Once people view distant coworkers as belonging to similar categories and they develop a set of common experiences, feelings of symbolic closeness can develop, regardless of any real geographic separation.
Perhaps surprisingly, our research found that frequent communication added a deep level “joined interests” and predicted how satisfied people were with their relationships, whether they learned from them, and whether they were interested in seeing those relationships continue, even for colleagues who were an average of 825 miles apart. More surprising still, we also found that the real distances between colleagues (objective proximity) actually had generally weaker or mixed relationships with feelings of closeness (perceived proximity) – and no effect on relationship quality.
The explanation behind these findings lies in the highly symbolic aspects of communication and identification. Because perceived proximity is highly symbolic, it is not only the basis for action, but also an affirmation of one’s identity as a connected, active, “always on” participant in fluid processes in a world without borders. In fact, “symbolic systems” may have evolved to the point where communication and shared identity can create perceptions of proximity that are as strong for dispersed colleagues as they are for collocated ones. In fact, colleagues working across objectively large distances may be working harder to communicate and develop strong working relationships with their colleagues.
Information systems play a key role in relaying symbolic value
Many distant colleagues have little influence or control over the distances that separate them. They do, however, have control over how often they communicate – and modern information systems are making frequent communication easier than ever. In fact, contrary to previous research, we found that not only did distant colleagues communicate no less frequently than those who were collocated, they also had virtually identical average levels of shared identity and perceived proximity as colleagues who worked in the same office.
In some instances, virtual relationships were actually preferred. According to one respondent, “technology is key to the relationship between myself and (geographically faraway coworker). As we do not work in the same office, the only form of communication on a regular basis has to go through e-mail of phone calls. This allows for preparation about what needs to be said whereas with (geographically collocated coworker) things are sometimes said hastily as they pop up into mind, without considering the full implications of what is being said.”
Today, there is a continuing shift of emphasis from information systems as “pipes” or channels to information systems as vehicles for conveying shared meaning and symbolic value. Indeed, the characteristics of modern communication affect perceptions of our proximity through three mechanisms: increasing cognitive salience, reducing uncertainty, and envisioning the other’s context. In fact, the symbolic features in new technologies are beginning to instantiate our sense of perceived proximity.
For example, Google+ allows users to arrange their contacts in circles that represent varying degrees of perceived proximity. Users can share different information with only certain circles of people. Consequently, Google+ draws on metaphors like one’s “inner circle” to characterize the people whom we perceive to be the most proximate. Putting someone in you inner circle might reinforce your expectations about how closely you identify and communicate with him or her.
What managers can achieve
Where traditionally researchers have argued that objective distance almost always exerts a negative impact on collaboration, our research reveals that managers can achieve many of the benefits of collocation without actually having employees work in one place. In other words, with the right approach, managers can help create strong working relationships and effective collaboration between team members, even if they never actually meet face-to-face.
In brief, virtual team managers should focus less on objective distance, and more on how to foster perceived proximity, the factor that will ultimately have the greatest impact on team cohesion and performance. Above all, a focus should be on encouraging frequent communication between team members, which in turn will help convey symbolic meaning, and reinforce feelings of shared identity.
As our research shows, perceived proximity is a powerful force shaping important outcomes in today’s workplace. At the same time, as a symbolic construct, perceived proximity is related to two other symbolic processes: communication and shared identity.
The notion of perceived proximity in organizational studies, and the results of our study contribute to a deeper understanding of how human action is driven by the meaning people give to their context. In fact, technology, global work, and telecommuting may have advanced to the point where collocated work is no longer the appropriate “control” for assessing dispersed collaboration.
- Read Prof. Metiu’s research paper into virtual teams
- Discover Anca Metiu’s article Team Excellence and Bubbles of Intimacy
- Watch Prof. Metiu’s video: How to Manage a Virtual Team
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