What happens to us when we work virtually? How do cultural diversity and distance impact how we act, think, and feel?
Actually quite a bit. For instance, let’s look at the very common hybrid virtual team. Teams can be 100% co-located, 100% virtual, and the hybrids are everything in between, where at least one member of the team is not sitting in the same physical space as the rest. The flexibility of virtual work means that there are as many hybrid team configurations as snowflakes.
Although the type of hybrid may change, there is an interesting psychological phenomenon that often occurs because of the distance we experience – this is known as constructual level theory
Think of a day in your agenda three months from now. You probably only have a vague idea of what needs to happen. But you know exactly what will happen tomorrow – who you will see, how you will prepare, what you will do. You know the details for tomorrow. According to Wilson et al. (2013), we do the same with people on virtual teams. We know the unique details of our colleagues nearby – he reads business books for pleasure, she triple checks the accuracy of a document, and she is most clear headed in the morning. But our colleagues far away – they are all … Russian (or fill in the country). We think of our close colleagues in more detail and our distant colleagues as more abstract. This can cause problems when trying to collaborate.
On a mild level of abstraction, we may not really know our distant colleagues well enough to leverage their strengths and work with their unique characteristics. Even more dangerous, we may use stereotypes, often based on things like national culture or ethnicity, as a way to create an ‘us vs them’ dynamic. This may happen more on hybrid teams than 100% remote because of the reinforcing mechanism of close colleagues who say ‘I don’t like working with them either’. On a destructive level, the subteams formed by location can withhold information from distant colleagues, favor local initiatives only, and avoid paying attention to a myriad of conflicts.
This is just the first step of looking at hybrid teams. There is so much more – majority/minority configurations, location with the team leader or headquarters, isolates (people on their own). But before we go further, try to observe your own situation. What words would you use to describe your local colleagues and your distant colleagues. Do you notice a difference?
You may be itching for solutions – What should I do? There are many ways to support virtual teams to be their best. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to see what is right for you.
Wilson, J., Crisp, C.B., & Mortensen, M. (2013). ‘Extending Construal-Level Theory to Distributed Groups: Understanding the Effects of Virtuality’. Organization Science, 24(2).