Closeness at a Distance: Leading Virtual Groups to High Performance

Closeness at a Distance: Leading Virtual Groups to High Performance


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Closeness at a Distance is a groundbreaking approach to the challenges so many teams, and team leaders, face today. Virtual working is now a reality for most professionals, and the winners of tomorrow will be companies that proactively drive the performance of their virtual cooperations. Virtual leadership, project management at a distance, and networking are today’s and tomorrow’s critical success factors. So any leader needs to ask him or herself “Is your virtual collaboration as successful as it should be?” How to answer this question, and how to improve performance in this key area, is the focus of this book. It introduces readers to Virtual Performance Improvement (VPI©) as the gateway to solutions to all key challenges faced by international virtual teams, groups, and networks. The book supports leaders so they perform successfully and effectively in virtual global environments. It guides team leaders, project and network managers, members, and even whole organizations, to areas of potential improvement in virtual performance and will help them turn vital challenges into competitive advantages. The book gives new insights into how to assist global groups, teams, and networks to perform better, and links project management, organizational, and cultural issues with the world of communication technology. ‘Enriched with numerous case studies and a storyline woven into the chapters, this book will be of immediate, practical help to anyone working with virtual teams and groups, or consulting, coaching, or training in such a context

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781909818002
Publisher: Libri Publishing
Publication date: 01/01/2014
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Marcus Hildebrandt is founder and managing director of and head of Virtual Performance Improvement (VPI®) at intercultures. He has been working internationally as an executive coach and consultant in the fields of personnel development, leadership development, and organization development, and has created innovative learning and meeting formats for the past 16 years. He has done pioneering work on virtual teams, and on e-coaching and e-moderation. He codeveloped the Virtual Performance Assessment (VPA®) and the Interpersonal Feedback Profiler, two tools that help professionals to improve the performance of global teams, groups, and networks. Line Jehle is founder and managing director of She has been working internationally as an executive coach and consultant for the past 18 years. Her professional focus is on helping organizations to improve their global performance through executive training courses and coaching. She codeveloped the Virtual Performance Assessment (VPA®) and is a member of the International Coaching Federation. Stefan Meister is founder and managing director of intercultures, an international consulting and training company that helps organizations to work efficiently with global complexity. As a trainer, consultant, and coach he has worked with over 70 companies in more than 30 different countries. He cocreated the Virtual Performance Assessment (VPA)® and the Interpersonal Feedback Profiler. Susanne Skoruppa works as a consultant, coach, and author at the nexus of Organization Development and conflict resolution. A lawyer and organizational psychologist, she has worked for the United Nations, the World Bank, and a number of national public and private organizations, and has ample experience working in and with intercultural, virtual teams, and groups. She teaches at the Free University of Berlin.

Read an Excerpt

Closeness at a Distance: Leading Virtual Groups to High Performance

By Marcus Hildebrandt, Line Jehle, Stefan Meister, Susanne Skoruppa

Libri Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Dr. Marcus Hildebrandt, Line Jehle and Stefan Meister
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-909818-01-9


Our Journey to a Simple Idea: Virtual Closeness and Purple Spaces

1.1 The Two Sides of Working Together Remotely

1.2 Virtual Closeness in Purple Spaces

1.3 Virtual Performance Assessment (VPA) at a Glance

This chapter lays the theoretical groundwork of this book. We are introducing the concepts of Virtual Closeness and Purple Space that underpin the practice of Virtual Performance Improvement.

After mapping out the challenges and opportunities of virtual collaboration, we will trace and define the concept of Virtual Closeness and identify the success factors of working together virtually. Finally, we will delineate Virtual Closeness from the notion of trust.

After reading this chapter, you will understand how we arrived at the notions of Virtual Closeness and Purple Space, what they entail, and how they differ from other concepts about enhancing virtual collaboration.

1.1 The Two Sides of Working Together Remotely: Rethinking Challenges and Identifying Opportunities

Answer the following questions as spontaneously as possible: Do you think it is preferable to work face-to-face or in close physical proximity? Or do you prefer to work virtually? If you choose the first option, you are in the company of a vast majority of people working virtually and internationally.

It is widely believed that groups working together remotely with the help of virtual tools do not perform as well as physically collocated groups. Unfortunately, from our experience we know that this is often true. A number of studies show that, on average, virtual groups tend to perform less effectively than collocated ones. This low performance tends to be magnified even when the virtual group operates across cultural boundaries.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that, given the right tools and under adequate management, virtual groups can perform extremely well. Several studies published during the last decade show that under certain circumstances, remote teams can even outperform collocated ones1. An article by Majchrzak, Malhotra, Stamps, and Lipnack, published 2004 in the Harvard Business Review and voted one of the top ten articles on building effective teams in 2011, specifies that while remote groups tend to perform more poorly than collocated groups, those that perform well can actually outperform collocated groups2! This signifies an enormous opportunity for creating high-performance virtual groups.

We have been consulting a large number of managers who work in remote settings as part of virtual groups. While they usually grow into their role of managing virtually, many of those leaders admit to finding the task difficult when asked about their experience. In the German-speaking countries, for example, two-thirds of virtual leaders do not perceive themselves as being successful at managing remotely. The reasons managers typically offer also point out the differences between managing collocated and virtual groups, including, for example: different locations, time zones, technology, communication, cultural behaviours, and language.

In light of such complexity, two questions arise. First, one might ask whether it makes any sense at all to work together virtually. The answer is yes, of course it does. In fact, the question is not very helpful given that virtuality has become indispensable in today's working world. This trend is highly unlikely to be reversed. In the global business environment, where many internationally oriented companies are already operating or will enter in the future, remoteness is an inevitable element of competition.

The second question is whether there are ways to overcome those difficulties; and again, the answer is yes, definitely. Not only can we overcome the intricacies of remote collaboration, but with good virtual leadership we can actually use the benefits of working globally and capitalize on the high diversity found in global groups. Moving attention from difficulties to opportunities also marks a paradigm shift: rather than settling for a virtuality that complicates our work processes, organizations can focus on the strengths of remote collaboration to increase performance significantly.

Think of the strengths of virtual collaboration as treasures hidden underneath the widely perceived difficulties — treasures which are unique to virtual groups and which must be found and cared for. Virtual group success is about redefining differences and difficulties inherent to remote work as a special feature that is absent in collocated teams and groups. In other words, when looked at from a perspective of potential rather than one of lack, remoteness becomes a competitive advantage. Diversity becomes one of the main keys to success.

In the table below, we redefine typical difficulties of working together remotely in the context of high diversity as opportunities.

The kind of leadership necessary to redefine weaknesses as strengths and create and manage high-performing groups, however, does not often come naturally. Excellent virtual management skills require training, as do skills required for group members to thrive in a virtual environment. A copy-and-paste approach from a collocated management role does not work in virtual groups. Rather, managing a virtual group requires leaders and members alike to learn and focus on new knowledge and skills in order to fully appreciate and include cultural diversity. Moreover, strong technological competences are key and the younger generations are often leading the way when it comes to acquiring media competences. Also, in complex virtual environments it is almost impossible to keep a constant overview of what is happening in the different participating locations. The ability to "deal with the unknown" in a professional manner is therefore another key competence of virtual leaders. In Chapter Seven, we will discuss in greater detail virtual leadership in the context of Virtual Performance Improvement.

1.2 Virtual Closeness in Purple Spaces: Our Journey to a Simple Idea

While it is difficult for virtual groups to be successful, it is certainly possible. What's more, once virtual collaboration works well and aspects of diversity previously perceived as obstacles are redefined and experienced as strengths, those groups can even outperform collocated ones.

So how is this shift from difficulty to opportunity accomplished? How do virtual groups go from poor to high performance?

• Through creating or enhancing Virtual Closeness between their members and between the members and the working context

• and by creating a new space of collaboration — the Purple Space.

Here is how we arrived at this central tenet during many years of working with virtual teams, groups, and networks and conducting targeted research.

Consider our teenage generations. Tech-savvy and mobile, they communicate constantly through text-based messaging services such as SMS, What's App or Facebook. They feel close to each other without being physically close, sometimes living in different countries. In virtuality, they have their own space of belonging. The same is true for online dating. Often, two people exchange large volumes of private information through a structured shared space before they meet. Why? To build trust virtually as the basis for a face-to-face meeting. Another example is receiving a letter from a loved one far away. The act of reading the letter produces a feeling of closeness without physically being near the other. Also, think of the growing number of successful online start-ups that acquire and maintain their clients, and deliver their services, almost entirely through communication in dedicated virtual spaces. Even counseling, coaching, and mediation are now offered over the phone, via Skype, or on websites with individuals most customers have never met physically but whom they trust because of being intimately familiar with their work through ample online interaction in shared virtual spaces.

* Example: The Virtual Choir

If you have ever been a part of a choir, you have experienced musical connection with others. The senses of the group heighten and the group attunes towards a common sound. In some sense, it seems that a similar phenomenon has now occurred virtually. The so-called Virtual Choir is a symphony of individual audio-visual recordings that are technically synchronized to resemble the sound of a choir; in more ways than one, this is a virtual choir. In simulating a real-time, collocated choir, members of the virtual choir achieve closeness in a virtual environment. The first Virtual Choir ("Lux Aurumque", meaning "light and gold") included 185 videos from 12 countries; Virtual Choir 2 ("Sleep") included over 2,000 videos from 60 countries; and most recently, Virtual Choir 3 ("Water Night") boasted 3,746 videos from 73 different countries!

How does the Virtual Choir work? Composer Eric Whitacre, originator of the Virtual Choir, makes an open call and posts an online video of himself "conducting" different sections of the choir. In turn, respondents from around the world submit video recordings of themselves singing to Whitacre's direction. From there, video technicians and an audio team do their work. Facebook is the shared virtual communication platform for people to interact with one another in relation to the choir. To date, the page has earned over 26,000 "likes". As an example of Virtual Closeness, a virtual community has been born and is flourishing. Virtuality is their concert hall, their space wherein they meet and sing together.

This example shows that an experience of deeply felt closeness can exist independently of geographical proximity. Thanks to media and technology, one can feel close to far-flung others and their shared space of collaboration and its purpose over extended periods of time — as close as when together physically. Relationships and the feeling of belonging can be built virtually.

For this, a sense of equality is key. The members of the choir come together in their online concert hall as equals. This points to a necessary shift in thinking about working together virtually. When joining an online meeting or a phone conference, the notion of someone being brought into the meeting is still widely spread. This presupposes one person, say a manager, who is responsible for bringing her group members into a phone or video conference with far-flung partners. For a collaboration space to work and be filled with closeness — the prerequisites of a Purple Space — however, it is vital that we think of participants as coming together in the common interaction space. The manager (or the organization) provides and partly fills this space with a structure, thereby fulfilling a typical task of virtual leadership. Rather than being brought into the meeting by someone else, they join the Purple Space as equal participants — each and every one of them.

From Virtual Distance to Building Virtual Closeness in a Space of Shared Interaction (Purple Space)

In their pioneering research work about the "virtual workforce", Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly examined this phenomenon5. They conceptualized the lack of the experience of feeling virtually close to others as virtual distance and identified three categories of separation: physical distance, operational distance, and affective distance. Distance does not only refer to spatial distance in this context but also encompasses the emotional dimension of feeling separated.

Virtual Distance describes the perceived distance between two or more people in communication or cooperation scenarios with little or no face-to-face contacts.

For organizational performance, Lojesky and Reilly stipulated that virtual success depends on reducing virtual distance in three corresponding areas: culturally, operationally, and organizationally.

In applying the concept of virtual distance to our work with customers, however, we soon found that the notions of "reducing" and "distance" have a negative connotation when in fact our goal is to encourage and increase motivation in virtual performance. We therefore developed what we perceive as a more motivational approach: that of Virtual Closeness. The tested underlying assumption holds that the closer groups feel virtually, the better they will perform and the more success they will have.

The other cornerstone of our approach is that of Purple Space. Purple Space is a collaboration space that is intentionally created for the purpose of virtual collaboration of a group.

When people from different parts of the organization and with different professional backgrounds come together in a virtual space, productivity usually drops significantly in face of the many different ways of doing things. These approaches represent the members' local cultures and are therefore usually considered as the "right" way of doing things by them. This propensity for chaos often creates negative feelings in people entering virtual spaces.

To counter and prevent a negative experience, we offer the concept of a Purple Space.

Purple Space is the global interaction space wherein virtual groups can reach high performance.

We chose purple because it denotes a mix of basic colours such as red and blue. These basic colours represent local cultures that feed into a transcultural (purple) dimension.

Purple has differing meanings across cultures. It can represent the spirit and spirituality as well as darker aspects of the psyche. It is the colour of Hinduism and of feminism, but also of mysticism. Aware of these different representations, we associate purple with positive aspects. To us, it symbolizes the transcendent quality of harmonizing contrasts.

Purple Space denotes a certain level of maturity and a reduction of complexity of that new interaction space in which groups meet when working virtually. Group members usually belong to a local interaction space encompassing elements such as a local working and communication culture; local rules, processes, and organizational structures; local technology; and local people. One member may join from a "blue" space, another from a "red" space. Consider a German manager who is part of a global team. He works from his local "blue" space (or any other colour) and is used to make preferably "blue" decisions that benefit his local community. Overall growth, however, happens when organizations create an additional, new space of belonging in which people feel close to each other and start taking responsibility on a more global scale, thereby creating benefits for the whole organization instead of only its respective local members. In our example, the organization will thrive once the German manager starts to make "purple" choices and decisions that benefit the entire group ("blue" and "red") rather than only his local team.

Purple Space is a collaboration space that is intentionally created for the purpose of containing the virtual collaboration of a group. A Purple Space is characterized by a certain degree of frictionless communication and collaboration processes in a global environment and is thus an artificial social innovation that has to be built on purpose. The currency of the Euro was, when introduced, a fitting example of a Purple Space. One side represented the old identity (blue, yellow, green, red, etc.), while the other side represented a new, common one (purple). In creating the Purple Space, the other spaces also became better known to each other, just as a Euro from Spain can arrive in an Austrian wallet. Reviewing history, we can also determine that a currency is a construct closely linked to the identity of people, so it is not easily given up. In the case of the Euro, we did not only gain one additional identity (purple), but also deeper knowledge about the other identities.

Purple Spaces are partly negotiated by all group members. The members can shift between the purple and local spaces depending on the task. A Purple Space is designed to allow users to build a shared identity for their work in virtuality. By building on, rather than standardizing, diversity, it fosters performance by drawing from the benefits of having different approaches to working together, to fulfilling tasks, and to solving conflicts.


Excerpted from Closeness at a Distance: Leading Virtual Groups to High Performance by Marcus Hildebrandt, Line Jehle, Stefan Meister, Susanne Skoruppa. Copyright © 2013 Dr. Marcus Hildebrandt, Line Jehle and Stefan Meister. Excerpted by permission of Libri Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Our Journey to a Simple Idea: Virtual Closeness and Purple Spaces 9

Interlude: The Story Begins 35

Chapter 2 Inclusion 39

Chapter 3 Organization and Process 71

Chapter 4 Space and Time 93

Chapter 5 Members, Tasks, and Objectives 121

Chapter 6 E-Culture 149

Interlude: Where Do We Go From Here? 175

Chapter 7 Selected Aspects of Virtual Leadership 177

Chapter 8 Media and Technology 201

Chapter 9 The Virtual Performance Assessment Tool (VPA) and the Virtual Performance Improvement Process (VPI) 221

Chapter 10 Case Studies 229

References 257

About the Authors 261

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