I just read Tripping Down a Virtual Reality Rabbit Hole,- a very interesting NY Times column by technology journalist Farhad Manjoo. Manjoo recently spent a few weeks testing the Occulus Rift and the HTC Vive, two of the most powerful VR devices on the market.
“The whole point of virtual reality is to create a fantasy divorced from the physical world,” he wrote. “You’re escaping the dreary mortal coil for a completely simulated experience: There you are, climbing the side of a mountain, exploring a faraway museum, flying through space or getting in bed with someone way out of your league… There are some great games on these systems… There are also several useful experiences, like designing your Ikea kitchen in V.R.”
“But if you’re not a gamer and you’re not looking for a new kitchen, V.R. is, at this point, just too immersive for most media. A few minutes after donning my goggles, I came to regard my virtual surroundings as a kind of prison… I suspect that V.R. will be used by the masses one day, but not anytime soon. I’m not sure we’re ready to fit virtual reality into our lives, no matter how excited Silicon Valley is about it.”
Manjoo’s reaction brought to mind the work of Karen Sobel-Lojeski, who’s long been studying technology-mediated interactions. She’s in the faculty at Stony Brook University as well as the founder of the workplace consulting firm Virtual Distance International. To be effective, she argues, our technology-based interactions must take place within the proper context, defined as “everything around us that helps us to understand who we are, where we are, and what our role is.” The way VR works, - at least for now, - is by cutting off all real-world context to better immerse us in its simulations, - an experience that as Farhad Manjoo discovered, can be very unsettling.
“However, today’s keyboard-tapping workers have very little context around who their counterparts are, how they feel about things, or what they hope for - in other words, what motivates them. Without a panoramic perspective, it’s difficult to form a sense of common purpose. 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.”
She coined the term virtual distance to describe such a lack of shared context and common purpose among the members of a work team. Virtual distance is essentially a measure of what’s lost when human interactions are not properly enabled by machines. The greater the virtual distance, the more problems the team will experience.
People often think that physical distance is the main contributor to virtual distance. While physical distance is indeed a component, poor performance occurs just as frequently when work teams are co-located on the same floor but their members remain distant from each other. According to Sobel-Lojeski, three sets of factors can contribute to virtual distance:
- Physical Distance: Including geographical and time-zone separation, and/or being part of different departments or organizations. While these all have an impact on the success of projects, they don’t on their own create virtual distance.
- Operational Distance: This can lead to miscommunications due to a number of factors, including not enough face-to-face group meetings, and problems with the technology tools being used. These issues are the easiest to change, but will not necessarily have a long-term impact if other concerns persist.
- Affinity Distance: Including the degree to which team members share cultural values and common communication styles, their attitudes toward work, how dependent they feel on each other for the success of the project, and how much of a working relationship they have. This is the most important factor in determining virtual distance.
To better understand what it takes to organize successful virtual work teams, Sobel-Lojeski and her colleagues have conducted surveys and interviews with hundreds of large enterprises, which uncovered high levels of virtual distance in companies around the world. Their data also showed that high virtual distance is accompanied by unintended, unwanted effects, including declining trust and goal clarity; less cooperation and innovative behaviors; and a decline by more than 50% in organizational commitment, satisfaction and overall project success.
“Virtual distance generates a shift in how people feel about themselves, other people, and the way in which they see themselves as part of, or separate from, the larger organizational landscape. In the absence of shared context, the connectivity paradox emerges: the more people are connected, the more isolated they can feel. And isolates among isolates do not collaborate, instead they simply comply with management edicts…”
“To restore true collaboration, leaders must continuously restore shared context. 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.”
In her 2011 book, “Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century,” Sobel -Lojeski recommends three key core competencies for successfully leading today’s virtual workforce:
Creating Context. Context is essentially “the foundation upon which we derive meaning from what other people say.” In the past, context was readily available because co-workers saw each other every day. “But today it’s not so simple. Work is commonly done in temporary projects where people come and go, and organizational affiliations change with each new project or merger or downsizing…”
“So one of the things that leaders need to do most is to help individuals and teams in the virtual workforce see the context that is otherwise invisible. They do this by understanding how to use technology to communicate effectively and by serving as a human anchor, or constant, to help everyone stay connected.”
Cultivating Community. “The word community is not one normally associated with corporate leadership. But today as organizations have become flatter and more matrixed, the ability to recruit people to work on projects or other assignments has become an important aspect of leadership. One way that effective leaders do this is by building diverse communities of people who have the skill and commitment to help, even though this may fall outside their prescribed organizational roles.”
Co-Activating New Leaders. “[L]eadership alone is not enough when it comes to large, networked organizations consisting of people who sit within the bounds of traditional organizational structures but who are also part of the new virtual workforce… Unlike models that espouse the leader as the singular transformative figure, today’s leaders co-opt others to make things happen - putting themselves aside at times, asserting their authority at other times, but recruiting others to lead at all times.”
“For leaders, the very first step in reducing virtual distance is to become aware that it’s strongly embedded everywhere screen-based interactions occur - between people sitting side-by-side with thumbs thumping while meeting for lunch or amongst team members scattered across the globe with only a glowing screen to keep them company,” writes Sobel-Lojeski in her HBR article.
“To address it, leaders need to develop techno-dexterity, which is the ability to act deliberately when communicating, understanding which message to deliver when and through which channel (face-to-face, phone, email, video, etc.)… By thinking about the who, what, when, where, and how of messaging and by including how much context the other person might need to fully understand your message, you will reduce virtual distance and improve performance.”