Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book The Power of Virtual Distance

Q&A on the Book The Power of Virtual Distance


Key Takeaways

  • Virtual Distance can be described as a sense one gets of being psychologically and emotionally far away from others.  
  • The Virtual Distance model includes three elements: Physical, Operational and Affinity. Each of these elements is further sub-divided and can be measured.
  • Virtual Distance is a pervasive phenomenon that affects the way we interact and work, whether we are on different continents or in the same room.
  • Virtual Distance is predictive of key organizational outcomes including satisfaction, innovation, project success, leader effectiveness and employee engagement as well as critical intermediate measures such as trust and organizational citizenship.
  • Virtual Distance can be reduced but it requires a Virtual Distance Action Plan that includes a prioritization of strategies and tactics which we outline in the book

The book The Power of Virtual Distance, 2nd edition, by Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard Reilly, describes the Virtual Distance Model and provides data and insights from research that can be used to lower Virtual Distance when working remotely together. By doing so, organizations can see quantifiable improvements in both business goals and human well-being among employees.  

InfoQ readers can download an extract of The Power of Virtual Distance.

InfoQ interviewed Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard Reilly about measuring, understanding, and reducing Virtual Distance.

InfoQ: What made you decide to create the second edition of your book The Power of Virtual Distance?

Karen Sobel Lojeski:  Our first book was published in 2009 when the notion of “working from home” wasn’t that widespread and certainly didn’t have any recognizable acronym. At that time, we’d collected quite a lot of data on how Virtual Distance was impacting companies.  However, as time passed, more organizations began to measure and implement Virtual Distance best practices.  That led to an expansion in both the data and increased insights into workplace transformation more generally.   

By 2018, ten years later, we realized that we had built both a benchmark data set and panoramic perspective like no other, including more than 1400 studies from more than 55 countries and 36 organizational sectors – year over year for more than 15 years.  

Over this decade plus, we found patterns that were mounting across the globe. Obvious things like increasing misunderstandings became more prominent every year. However, the vast number of changes were more counterintuitive - flying in the face of mainstream beliefs about virtual work.  For example, at first, we were surprised that high Virtual Distance was found in face-to-face interactions just as much as we found it in distributed teams.  And the opposite was also true:  Low Virtual Distance could be found between people who never met and sat on opposite ends of the earth.  This still surprises many, however this finding bodes well in a world where remote work is likely to remain a mainstay much more so than before Covid-19 – but to achieve that big benefit, leadership has to work a bit harder and turn their thinking around.

We were also privy to a lot of specific situations that executives were not likely to share outside company walls. The many dozens of Virtual Distance projects we had done up until 2018 and now beyond, exposed some surprising and serious undercurrents taking shape in every industry.  So, we also wanted to share them because they were universal - no matter country borders.

When we aggregated all the data and experience we had gained since our first book, it was clear that Virtual Distance was rising exponentially everywhere.  Yet much of what was being written about or presented at conferences was still based on outdated management models fundamentally built upon conditions that have largely ceased to exist.  And this is still going on today – even in the face of the most troublesome health and geopolitical risk impacting the workforce and society more generally in modern times.

Therefore, we thought it was time to update our work to help everyone, from individual contributors to senior leadership, and find a systematic and predictably reliable way to manage a very different workforce landscape.

So in this book we tried to present a repeatable methodology for applying solutions that would predict success and reduce confusion across the board, taking the guesswork out of implementing reliable and effective management control systems for virtual and remote work. 

And that was before Covid.

In fact, our book made it to the printing presses just before everything shut down in March.  As of the writing of this article, we’ve been asked to update the book as part of a translation request from Germany.  We’ll be adding some specific ways that Virtual Distance practices can have even more powerful positive impacts given Covid-19 and its unprecedented challenges.

Richard Reilly:  Several reasons spurred us to do a revision. First, we had collected a large set of multi-company and multinational data on Virtual Distance and its influence on key outcomes.  The data validated most of our earlier ideas and we were able to add more fine-grained analyses.  For example, we were able to look at the effects of Virtual Distance for different generations.  

A second reason was that technology had evolved and remote work became more pervasive (we had no idea of the massive change that the pandemic would have on remote work).  Changes in PDA’s, for example, have made communicating with fairly high social presence commonplace from anywhere and anytime.  When we wrote the first edition the norm was the conference call with audio only.  Although there were some sophisticated video interactive systems they were expensive and required special arrangements. Now, video platforms, such as Zoom, have enabled individuals and teams to easily interact “face-to-face”.  We believe that the ideas we first proposed have even more relevance today but we wanted to take these changes into account in our discussion of how Virtual Distance continues to influence individuals, teams and organizations.  

A third reason was the extensive experience in working with organizations across the globe on managing Virtual Distance and its effects on important organizational outcomes.  This allowed us to include first-hand reports and case studies from many of the individuals and organizations that illustrate the role that Virtual Distance plays in work.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Lojeski: The basic answer is everyone.  While this book is focused on business professionals, we have found over the years that it has also been helpful to educational leaders, healthcare workers, as well as families, local communities and policy makers.  

I think this dawned on me most poignantly given two particular experiences.  The first was when I was asked to be a speaker at the United Nations’ Conference on the Commission on the Status of Women in 2011.  The topic I was asked to talk about was actually about how technology could help lift young girls out of poverty and other, more merciless, situations in third world and developing countries.  

However, I also wanted to talk about how Virtual Distance was impacting international policies aimed at helping these young women. So, I ended up addressing that as well. My main message: having technology skills alone was too narrow a way to approach or apply this often-misleading, broad-brush approach to human issues.  

So I talked about the combination of both “on-the-ground” social and cultural challenges that go way beyond developing STEM skills to breach cyclical, insidious indecent inequities which are in large part aggravated by Virtual Distance. Throughout the entire decision-making process about who gets what from a policy perspective, much of those interactions are also impacted by Virtual Distance. Bottom-line, the context of the direct experience needed to make well-informed and empathetic decisions to help these young women and other groups in need, was decreasing.

Although the talk was relatively short and Virtual Distance discussed only briefly, to my most deeply humble surprise, many attendees lined the stairs along the hall’s wall to say “thank you” for bringing this forward.  Dozens said that Virtual Distance was one of the most concerning issues impacting their families, communities, politics and other life-saving efforts across many varied countries that dot the globe from pole to pole.  

The second experience was a more close encounter with the Global Leadership Fellows, from the World Economic Forum.  I was asked to teach a module about Virtual Distance analytics and solutions in a multi-university Masters degree program, specifically formulated from a combination of some of the best schools in the world, including where I taught my part, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. I started by measuring Virtual Distance in their context. They were quite amazed at the results.  Many reported it was one of the most important things they learned and took with them into their careers.  But above all – I remember one Fellow pulling me aside to tell me that that mine was the only module – in the many, many classes strung together, that actually talked about “the people” – and the effects of policy on them directly.  He was struck by the fact that all other courses were designed around concepts, macro-structures and generalized conditions, but not the actual toll or influence these combined machinations might be having on actual people.  It was a moving moment.

So in sum, although the book is marketed to a business audience, there are lessons for almost everyone in our multi-dimensional lives in the context of Virtual Distance.

Reilly: Anyone who regularly uses a digital communication device in their work. In other words, the vast majority of today’s global workforce.

InfoQ: What are the main challenges when it comes to virtual work?

Reilly: There are many that we discuss but two of the most important are understanding context and a lack of shared values. Shared context is the bedrock of civil conversation and forms the basis for deep and meaningful relationships.  A key to reducing some of the day-to-day or operational challenges is to reduce Communication Distance.  By rebalancing both the amount of context people have about others and their situations, as well as mixing up different communication modes on a regular basis, we can make virtual work much better. A lack of understanding of co-workers’ value systems can produce misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. Interventions that bring differing value systems to the surface in ways that don’t erase them but create a layering system where different value systems can complement one another is highly recommended.

Lojeski:  While there are many challenges of virtual work that we cover in detail, at the core is a deterioration of trust that often turns into distrust.

Virtual work gives us many options as to where, when and how to work.  And this is highly useful and a positive development.  However, as we discovered from the beginning, the trade-offs and unintended consequences are extensive and need to be corrected.  When we work mainly through screens, the human contextual markers that guide our cognitive and emotional selves, to know who we can trust and under what circumstances, disappear behind virtual curtains.

We have shown conclusively that high Virtual Distance is the statistical equivalent of Distrust, while lower Virtual Distance results in the strong trust bonds we need to build relationship foundations that ultimately result in both better work product as well as higher levels of well-being.

Recently a senior executive from a large global company expressed his concern regarding the fact that many leaders do not trust their employees to work virtually.  And we’ve found that it’s a two-way street, as many employees don’t trust their leaders to assess or treat them fairly under these conditions.

The erosion of trust was highly problematic before Covid19.  Now, it’s risen to the level of a “crisis of distrust”. We need to work more virtually going forward for health, safety and flexibility reasons, and this is likely true into the foreseeable future.  Therefore, it’s critical that trust be restored on both sides.  We’ve found both through the data and on-the-ground accounts in hundreds of examples, that when leaders focus on Virtual Distance and people’s relationships with each other in a coherent and system-wide view, instead of old-style command and control, strong trust can be predictably reignited and lead to more meaningful experiences of work and life more generally.

InfoQ: How do you measure Virtual Distance? At what look levels can we measure it?

Reilly:  Virtual Distance is measured by the Virtual Distance Index that has been evaluated for psychometric reliability and validity.  We measure three major dimensions, each of which includes several sub-factors.   Physical Distance is the first factor and includes Geographic distance, Temporal Distance (differences in time zones and schedules), and Organizational Differences – those aspects of work that are fixed in space, time and affiliation.  The second factor is Operational Distance and includes Communication, Readiness and Multi-load factors – those aspects of work that change from day to day depending on the degree to which there is shared context, both physical and shared mental models, as well as quirks in communication technology and the ever-present weight of multiple deliverables usually due at the same time.  The third and final factor is Affinity Distance, which includes Cultural, Relationship, Social and Interdependence Distances that when taken alone or together, are the most insidious part of Virtual Distance that ends up impacting results the most.  

Each of these sub-factors are combined in repeatable combinations of analytics to yield a stable and highly explanatory construct that holds together statistically and predicts success and failures.

InfoQ: How does trust relate to Virtual Distance? What factors impact trust between people?

Lojeski:  As mentioned above, trust - or lack thereof – can be traced directly back to Virtual Distance.  Trust is a combination of three important factors:  benevolence, ability and integrity.  Benevolence refers to whether people treat each other well on a consistent basis.  Ability refers to whether people see the other as having the necessary skills and expertise to do their work with a high level of competence.  Integrity refers to whether people dependably keep their promises.  When taken together, people develop strong trust for others.  However, when Virtual Distance is high and left unmanaged, it’s difficult for people to understand others’ motives; to have confidence in others’ abilities and to feel as though people are consistently keeping their word.  

It’s not a matter of whether or not these three issues are always perfectly “true”.  Trust deteriorates because when Virtual Distance is high – we can’t see through to the context we need in order to decide whether or not people are trustworthy.  When those barriers are broken down by reducing Virtual Distance, the context around which people behave becomes clearer.  That’s when people can then make appropriate decisions about whether others are displaying these three key aspects of trust – taking away the “mystery” around authentic intentions.  And thissequence “opens the door” for people to trust others, assuming they are not malevolent, nefarious or careless with relationship management.

InfoQ: When is it better to be together in person?

Reilly and Lojeski:  If it’s possible, meeting in person is important in several situations. First, when the project first gets off the ground. This helps to establish a base of trust and familiarity with other team members that will be long-lasting from the outset unless people are given reason to doubt their first impressions.

Second, if there are major problems that need to be discussed openly. Misunderstandings or lack of open debate might cause disasters, and this is often a common problem when Virtual Distance interferes with a clear line of sight into others’ situations. People need to be able to look each other eye-to-eye to get the best possible solution and to be the most honest in interpretation and intuitive insight to prevent or manage a crisis when it’s safe to do so.

Third, when presenting major project deliverables, especially those that are complex or highly technical, communicating end results should be a coordinated effort where the energy of the team can come across directly to the receivers.

Fourth, when problems need to be brought to the customer. This is especially

important if the team has missed deadlines that could impact the customer’s customer and/or overall business continuity or competitiveness.

Finally, performance reviews and/or other career-related assessments where emotional responses need a chance to flow through others – not just the person being assessed - should be done in-person. Any time feedback might create a change to one’s longer-term position and possibly threaten key relationships, in-person meetings are best.

But of course – these guidelines were put forth before Covid-19 when despite tight budgets, these and other critical in-person moments were possible quite easily. Many say that video conferences basically can achieve the same thing. But they can’t.  

We share literal creature-based experiences with each other unconsciously when in close proximity – not the least of which is the exchange of pheromones that carry with them emotional experience that cannot be simulated online – no matter how clear the audio or sharp the image – it is still only two-dimensional and lifeless if not attended to with special care.  The same problem exists with the lack of ability to look at someone in the eye without a mediated and interpreted digital intermediary.  When we are actually together, we begin to mimic one another to the point where we silently settle on a synchronous exchange.  We even match our rate of blinking to mirror the other and with that, other expressive impressions are directly exchanged.

And while we all need to maintain a level-headedness and graciousness toward one another – when screen-based –an over-attempt to do so can come across as emotionless thereby zapped of the most motivating feature of interactions: a sense of something other than “pure neutrality” or an automaton-like tedium.  Think about how often we hear now that our energies are down, people are exhausted and trolling through a monotonous life. A lot! And this is largely due to the lack of real and very direct aliveness that comes through in-person interaction.

So, to get some experience of the critical feelings we need, when we recommend being in-person by pre-Covid Virtual Distance standards, people in today’s difficult virtual situations can use some of video’s facial broadcasts to help fill in the blanks, but these alone are not enough.  

In fact – sometimes turning off video and using just a small phone without the distraction of a larger screen with wobbling pixels and weird angles, may even be better for getting a clear signal through the noise and “sameness” of experience.  Further, it’s important to articulate what we actually mean through our tone and voice and let go of what feels like the never-ending “impression management” habits that have become all-too common.  While civility, tact and respect are still the keys to solving difficult problems when there may be mixed emotions – we must allow a bit more of our “true” selves to come out in the moment – informing difficult conversations around complex problems with more genuine human character.

InfoQ: How do millennials typically score on Virtual Distance?

Reilly:  Our data are somewhat surprising. Conventional wisdom says that millennials are “digital natives,” comfortable with technologically mediated communication.  What we found was that Virtual Distance was significantly higher for millennials.  Our data also show that millennials have significantly higher “out-group” problems because the teams they’re part of tend to be dominated by members who have very different histories. In a world of work where four, if not five, generations are working together at the same time, for the first time, in human history, millennials feel especially distant from colleagues. A contributing factor is that millennials tend to over-rely on one communication mode versus a more varied mix of phone calls and other “live” encounters. This is no surprise. But when coupled with a sense of being an outsider with few shared experiences with other generations, this can create serious team dysfunction. One manifestation is an absence of common social circles with colleagues, as compared with other generations. We see the results of this disconnect in several of our outcome measures. 

Millennials have the highest levels of distrust for team members than any other generational cohort combination. And trust has a fundamental influence on all other outcomes.  For example, millennials score lower on employee engagement and organizational citizenship (helping behaviors).  One bright spot is that millennials, by far, participate in organizational learning the most. This may seem counterintuitive given millennials’ results on Virtual Distance and trust, but we found that millennials stay focused on seeking out new insights and they’re strongly motivated to learn new things.  This leads them to tune in closely and listen for lessons learned during team meetings and transfer those to other work. For them, this is a “survival tactic”.  This is one of the main reasons why millennials can gain a lot of skill-based competencies even though they’re not as socially close.

Lojeski:  The differences between Millennials and now what are being called “Zoomers” following close behind, struck me strongest during one of our very first engagements.  It was a large tech company in Silicon Valley having trouble attracting and retaining summer interns.  At that time – the notion of “digital native” had not taken hold as a culturally dominant term, but there were growing symptoms of many youth being unable or what some believed to be “unwilling”to hold a stare with someone else – to look across into someone else’s eye while talking to them.  And this became the normal way of thinking about our youth – detached and shy at best, to lazy and purposefully disengaged, at worst. 

But what I knew through my own experiences with my pre-teen daughter and verified through more scientific analytics, was that these young people simply wanted what others had wanted from their careers:  a strong sense of social energy, making new friends, learning new things, broadening their horizons and setting themselves up to put together a good life. It sounds simple enough, but with one major problem.

Many of the older generations had assumed that their marriage to communication devices had stripped them of the most human desires, and instead they were hopelessly addicted to the small metal boxes held in their hands.  And while addiction has developed, we sold them shamelessly short as people – expecting them to act in the same way that we did when we never had these kinds of communication devices handed to us as relatively small children!  To tell a young person they’re being rude - when typing while others are talking or that they are being assessed based on performance that does not include a lot of social interaction because of their difficult-to-break relationship with the box in their hands – isn’t fair because basically, that’s all they know!  It’s not their “fault”.  And they’ve become – as a whole – quite upset and resentful as a cohort because in large part, they’ve been pigeon-holed this way. 

Most millennials wouldn’t be able to explain it this way because they don’t have the line of sight that we have in our studies of Virtual Distance.  But it’s clearly a trend that contributes a great deal to their most troubling lack of trust and deprivation of role models in older generations.  They also have the added and most heavy human weights to carry with them – those being the very palpable and psychically infinite stress of existential threats to their own futures, the world’s future and the questions of whether a happy and fully formed future will be available to them and their children.  With global warming news sharpening with each calving of another ice shelf, the disappearance of thousands of species each year and the general unease created by the perfect storm of pandemics and unstable politics, they are especially feeling isolated from the generations that came before.  This adds to the Virtual Distance they carry unbeknownst to them, because earlier generations – surely having had their share of crises – have never seen this most brutal batch of calamities that seem to overwhelm even the most level-headed and grounded adult –let alone a young one.

So from a practical perspective, if we are to attract, retain and nurture a more hopeful and effective leadership for the future, this aspect of Virtual Distance – the generational aspect – could not be made a higher priority.

InfoQ: What benefits can we get from reducing Virtual Distance in companies?

Lojeski:  Well, first and foremost, by reducing Virtual Distance, we are treating the cause of many downstream, interconnected dilemmas.  This means we can increase financial success by many millions that flow straight to the bottom line, competitive success by interactions that produce higher innovation and problem-solving that leads to better as well as quicker products to market and increased customer satisfaction.  All three of these are tangible results that are directly tied to lowering Virtual Distance (the specific increases on each of these and other outcomes are detailed in the book).

Another benefit is that Virtual Distance takes the mystery out of the problem definition, thereby allowing managers to act on them more directly. For example, I have talked to countless HR executives who tell me that they have high employee engagement and yet generally their people don’t trust one another and/or leadership.  They say, “how can that be?”

It’s because of a network of intertwined issues; the distinctions between which are hard to see.  Employee engagement by “definition” is generally a measure of the employee’s relationship to the “concept” of the company – not other team members or “real people”.  If you look at the questions on a typical “pulse” survey, you’ll see things like “Would you recommend others work for this company?” or “The company holds the same values as I do”, and things like that.  Ultimately, it reflects a small measure about the relationship the person has with what they “perceive” the company stands for.  It’s a very different construct than trust, although they are related.

So, from a high level, the biggest benefit is that by using Virtual Distance to get at causal relationships around multiple management levers, leadership see tangible evidence in the financials and competitive positioning, and also tease out exactly how people behave inside what’s otherwise a big “black box” when it comes to what’s impacting what, in terms of outcomes.

Another big benefit is that once revealed, the relationships between employees as measured by Virtual Distance predict a number of things that then cause corporate-level success or missed targets.  For example, the standard VDI Index measures its impact on trust, organizational citizenship behaviors (helping behaviors), job satisfaction, employee engagement, leader effectiveness, role and goal clarity, the extent to which employees feel their work has a strategic impact on the company directly, as well as learning – a key ingredient to long-term financial success and innovation.  By doing so, leaders know precisely, by team, department, division and so on, how to rank their priorities to get to healthier financials and more customers as they reduce Virtual Distance in this targeted fashion.

So, there are measurable gains no matter where people work – because we’re all subject to the forces that drive up Virtual Distance.  And despite the somewhat cliché-like nature that has become associated with meaningful work, the fact remains that when one feels closer to their peers and leadership, they also derive more meaning from work.  We see this time and time again.  This then leads to better health and well-being among a larger set of people.  And in these difficult times – a focus on this fundamental human benefit is often what people are craving the most. 

InfoQ: How can we build the relationships needed for effective innovation in virtual workplaces?

Reilly:  There are two important phases in innovation: idea generation and product development.  The front end of innovation is where the ideas for new products or services are generated. The ideas may simply involve identifying new opportunities to be exploited, identifying new ways in which existing products can be improved or coming up with completely new ideas that can lead to breakthrough developments. Two important activities in the front end include brainstorming and collaborative idea generation, both of which can be influenced by Virtual Distance. Physical Distance may actually be an advantage for some brainstorming-type idea generation. Being separated from other people allows the individual to be more relaxed, less apprehensive about negative feedback, and freer to express original ideas.  Collaboration can be facilitated by user-friendly platforms, which can make collaboration go smoothly even when people are geographically separate. Affinity Distance can be lowered through prior relationships, shared values, and in-person meetings if they can be arranged. Shared values ensure that ideas are in sync with the organization’s culture, and shared language is important to clearly communicate the ideas.

One of the most important drivers in the development phase is having a clear and consistent vision.  Once an idea has been defined, creating a clear vision allows everyone on the team to have a common understanding of what is being developed, what needs to be done, and what they have to do to get there. The vision has to be communicated and periodically checked to make sure that all team members continue to have the same understanding. This allows a shared mental model to be developed, which enables teams to function together

seamlessly. Lowering Affinity Distance and Communication Distance are key factors here.  This will allow all team members to develop a shared mental model so they understand what needs to be done to develop the final product.

Lojeski: Innovation is the result of the collaborative relationships between people, between themselves, and their thoughts all combined with our shared and direct experiences in the real world.  Virtual Distance at best distorts these relationships, and at worst, blinds us to them.  Reducing Virtual Distance clears away this dense fog that denies us a clear line of sight to each other, ourselves and the world around us.  With our authentic relationships and interdependencies restored, collaboration takes off and innovation breaks free to create the “magic” that we’re all looking for to improve our companies as well as our lived experiences every day.

Virtual Distance is a Registered Trademark of Virtual Distance International LLC

About the Book Authors

Richard R. Reilly, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor at the Stevens Institute School of Business, where he developed and led the Ph.D. program.  Before joining Stevens Dr. Reilly was a research psychologist for Bell Laboratories and AT&T.  He has authored five books and over 80 publications related to assessment, organizational behavior, project and team performance. 

Karen Lojeski, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Virtual Distance International (VDI), an executive advisory services and software company specializing in Workplace Transformation powered by her award-winning discovery of Virtual Distance Analytics. Dr. Lojeski began as a systems engineer with a B.S. in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics and has held leadership positions at major corporations including Chase Manhattan Bank, Stratus Computer, and Mercer Consulting. Dr. Lojeski then earned her Ph.D. from Stevens Institute of Technology. Dr. Lojeski is the author of three books: The Power of Virtual Distance:  A Guide to Productivity and Happiness in the Age of Remote Work (Wiley, 2020),Leading the Virtual Workforce and Uniting the Virtual Workforce and has been showcased in the NYT, WSJ, CNBC, NPR and other major outlets making her is a highly sought-after global speaker on workplace transformation and related societal topics.

Rate this Article