Empathy and Trust Across Virtual Distance – Part 1

Posted on 4th October 2016


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I would like to explore a key challenge in today’s business environment: working in distributed or ‘virtual’ teams.

Three Related Challenges

A key element of this challenge is reliance on information technology – e-mail, Skype, web-conferencing, etc. – for communication, often between people who have never met or don’t know one another well. This can make it difficult to establish empathy and trust, which in turn can have a negative impact on teamwork and productivity. Working effectively over virtual distance is thus a skill we all need to improve.

An interesting way to understand virtual distance is to disaggregate it and analyze the pieces separately. So let us think of virtual distance as the interaction of three factors: physical, emotional, and operational distance.
Physical distance speaks for itself: how far away is the person from you physically? Is she across the corridor, across an ocean, or across the world? Implicit in physical distance may be several other considerations: if the person is located at a great distance, he or she probably lives in another time zone and that may impact the functioning of the virtual team. He or she may live in another country or even on another continent, with its own cultures and languages and business expectations. Thus physical distance and its implications are important to consider.

Emotional distance is how well you know the other person, and the degree of empathy and trust that you have with one another. This is one of the great challenges of virtual teams: how to reduce emotional distance and build empathy and trust with people living far away whom you’ve probably never met. It is not easy to do, but there are steps we can take to make this situation better. The first step is to understand the nature of the challenge and to recognize how important emotional distance can be to the functioning of a virtual team.

Operational distance is about getting things done, executing work-related tasks in a timely and productive manner across virtual distance. This is about the specific value chains and internal processes of different enterprises, and there can be tremendous variations in operational distance: there are globe-spanning supply chains that work flawlessly across time and space, and there are restaurants that can’t deliver a pizza across town before it gets cold. So we need to think carefully about how to reduce operational distance as well.

Now that we have a sense of physical, emotional, and operational distance, in next week’s post we will use these concepts to seek a better understanding of our personal challenges with virtual distance.

Good luck, and until next time…