“Karen Sobel Lojeski is a professor in the Department of Technology and Society at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. She has written two books on the changes that technology has wrought in the way humans communicate in the workplace and in life. Her first book, Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise, detailed the phenomenon she calls “virtual distance.” Her second book, Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century, was published by Wiley in November 2010. It unveils Lojeski’s virtual distance leadership model, including key competencies and actions.
Q: What is virtual distance?
Lojeski: Virtual distance occurs when people work and communicate primarily through technology. It’s not just about geographic distance, but about three things: Physical distance—space, time, and environment; operational distance—psychological gaps that arise from problems in the workplace; and affinity distance—the emotional disconnect that gets in the way of forming deep relationships. You can have less virtual distance with someone who is far away than a co-worker who sits in the next cubicle.
Q: Who is affected by virtual distance?
Lojeski: We all are. Since the rise of the knowledge worker and its coincidence with information technology, all workers have become virtual. If you sit in front of a computer all day long, you are a virtual worker, no matter where that computer is located.
Q: What inspired you to develop the virtual distance leadership model?
Lojeski: The rise of technology and its detrimental effect on communication and performance wasn’t being addressed in leadership books. I wanted to help put some language and some discrete measures around a phenomenon we weren’t previously able to explain.
Q: Why did you focus on leaders rather than workers?
Lojeski: Leaders bear the responsibility for building context, which is one of three key actions that are essential to effective leadership. All context drops away in virtual work; it’s up to leaders to color in the background, to provide the information that’s critical to meaningful conversations.
Q: What are the key competencies leaders need to minimize virtual distance?
Lojeski: There are four. Techno-dexterity refers to the ability to match the right technology to the right message so it has the most impact. Traversing boundaries is the bridging of differences that contribute to virtual distance—functional, cultural, organizational, generational. Glocalization requires that leaders keep both the wide world and the immediate community in focus. And the fourth is Authenticity, exuding genuineness and transparency.
This is the flip side of Charles Handy’s argument in “Trust and the Virtual Workforce.” Whereas Handy urges leaders to trust workers, I’m urging leaders to act in such a way that workers can trust them. Leaders must step up to the plate to earn and keep their team members’ trust.
Q: What actions can leaders take to manage virtual distance?
Lojeski: As we’ve discussed, creating context is one; shared context is often lost amid our intensive eye contact with screens rather than other human beings. The second is cultivating community, identifying issues that people can rally around. The third is activating new leaders, seeding virtual employees with the knowledge and skills that enable them to be leaders themselves. This is what Beth Bogan at GE Healthcare refers to in the accompanying piece on joining forces.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
Lojeski: The train has left the station; we are all virtual now. Effective leaders will work toward changes that drive better performance by understanding this new landscape.
–Karen Sobel Lojeski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.