Virtual Distance Causes Sense of Separateness
Thursday, July 18, 2013

Everywhere people go, so too are smart devices: smart phones, iPads, laptops, or, simply stated, screens. Many question whether it’s possible to achieve social well-being while co-existing with electronic displays. Surprisingly, it is possible, but only if society—including corporations—scan for, detect, and intentionally work to remedy the resulting “virtual distance,” the sense that we are separate from others.

Consider this: Whether sitting in an office alone or waiting in line for a Broadway show while standing among hundreds of others on a buzzing New York City byway, the glowing panel can drag even the most social person into cyber-oblivion. A sense of separateness grows no matter the situation. Accumulating are experiences with pixels instead of people and a society made up of isolates among isolates. The cause, however, is not the machine itself, as many are led to believe. No, the culprit is virtual distance, helped along by mediating machines.

Virtual distance involves psychological and cognitive alterations arising from on-going and mostly uninterrupted electronic chatter. As a result, the mind focuses only on what’s reflected in the glow. Associations with other human beings are forgotten and the one-to-one relationship with the device is the only connection seen or felt. When this happens among many dozens, hundreds, or thousands of employees, social well-being within the company fractures.


Social well-being is critical to organizational success. Job satisfaction and employee engagement are inherently linked to social happiness. There’s nothing new here. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, group belonging and meaningful social interactions are fundamental to good performance. And yet many companies don’t realize the extent to which mechanical conversations delete people’s ability to form deep relationships.

Many focus only on physical separation as the culprit causing social detachment. But that idea leads managers down the wrong path. Detachment from others comes in many forms and is not just a physical phenomenon. Cognitive function also corrodes.

On a day-to-day basis, email is the most common way employees interact. But in any interaction, whether it’s face-to-face or virtual, human beings need a lot of information to distill meaning from a conversation. In the presence of another, it’s not only a person’s expression that’s used to interpret messages; it’s the context in which they say something—like where they are, what else is going on around them, and the kind of intonation heard. These elements are invisible yet powerful components of a civil discussion.

In other words, we use multiple inputs even when we are standing right next to each other. So it doesn’t make sense to expect productive relationships to develop when electronic communication is what employees rely on most. When those dominate there’s no context in which to frame the words on the screen, so we might as well be deaf and blind.

Virtual distance builds in all organizations where computer-mediated communication is prevalent. Social well-being suffers, and performance degrades. The next three posts of this series will offer solutions to overcome virtual distance and restore social well-being in the workforce.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski is a Professor in the Department of Technology and Society in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at Stony brook University.  Karen is also the Founder of Virtual Distance International (VDI) and the Virtual Distance Institute, organizations that specialize in helping companies maximize productivity and innovation among the virtual workforce.  After 18 years on Wall Street, Karen pursued a Ph.D. and discovered the new phenomenon of Virtual Distance, a measureable concept that predicts the success or failure of organizational outcomes.  Karen is internationally recognized as the world’s leading expert on virtual teams, leadership in the wired world and managing global organizations. She is the author of two books:  “Uniting the Virtual Workforce:  Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise” and “Leading the Virtual Workforce:  How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century”, showcasing executives from major corporations around the world.  Karen’s clients include large Fortune 500 companies, governments and non-profits.  Karen’s award-winning dissertation, “Virtual Distance:  A New Model for the Study of Virtual Work” has launched a new field of academic studies into this area and Karen is now affiliated with many other renown universities including Wharton, Babson College, the Stockholm School of Economics and more.  Karen is a highly sought-after public speaker, executive advisor and consultant on the topics of global leadership, innovation and distributed work.
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