This post is a follow up dovetailing another insightful post by Ryan Ewers concerning the importance of building and maintaining trust in team relationships (I strongly encourage readers to access). One point in particular stood out to me. Central to the post is a concept of ‘trust,’ as it pertains to the relationship of teams, defined as “a strong sense of certainty…that something will be accomplished” allowing leaders and teams to “become entangled.”

The metaphor of leaders and teams acting as paired particles over long distances raises certain critical issues concerning the use of technology in facilitating group interaction.

Given developments in modern communicative and collaborative technologies there is certainly truth to the idea that this type of ‘trust,’ once established, can overcome distance. As organizations operate in an increasingly global world success seemingly depends on it.

However, trust at a distance is something that must be further parsed. What organizations and their teams must guard against is that physical connectedness does not completely disappear even if levels of ‘trust,’ or the related idea of social capital, are high.

The primary cautionary tale told here counsels that relying too much on our electronic networks potentially engenders what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman dubs “virtual proximity.” Applied here the term describes aspects of social relationships mediated through network technologies (e.g., videoconferencing, telecommuting, virtual collaboration, etc.) allowing individuals to transcend space and, to an extent, time (i.e., a team can work ‘together’ anywhere an Internet connection exists, and do so in real time). Virtual proximity provides for flexibility, and can be a supplemental tool and a force multiplier. Organizations, whether large or small, can have teams and their members spread across the globe. There are many technological platforms and organizational principles that facilitate these types of team dynamics, in fact, Psychology21C provides service to counsel organizations about just these issues.

Yet, it is important to share a word of caution. Virtual proximity by itself will not contribute to the building of trust, and in fact may be detrimental to it. At its extreme it allows us to “be alone together.”

We are all familiar with the concept even if the term itself is foreign. The next time one finds themselves utilizing mass transit take note of what people are doing. Even though they are physically close to one another (and if you find yourself in the New York City subway system the experience can be extremely palpable), technology allows people to be ‘apart together.’ Bonds with other denizens

are frail at best.    Photo Courtesy Shalom Life – Hyperlink Contained Within Graphic

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Don’t use mass transit? Look at the dinner table.

A somewhat extended quote from Bauman is poignant. Virtual proximity

“renders human connections simultaneously more frequent and more shallow, more intense and more brief. Connections tend to be too shallow and brief to condense into bonds. … Contacts require less time and effort to be entered and less time and effort to be broken. Distance is no obstacle to getting in touch – but getting in touch is no obstacle to staying apart” (Bauman 2003 62 italics by author).

Virtual proximity can undermine organizational relationships, including those of leaders and their teams. They must be cognizant of this dynamic, and take measures to guard against it. I agree with Ewer’s assertion that if effectively established, trust can very well “transcends physical distance” (sic), and hence the ability for a team to understand their roles and accomplish their goals on a global scale. But even the most effective leaders who foster trust and the conditions for teams to act autonomously can be undermined.

Virtual proximity can undermine organizational relationships, including those of leaders and their teams. They must be cognizant of this dynamic, and take measures to guard against it. I agree with Ewer’s assertion that if effectively established, trust can very well “transcends physical distance” (sic), and hence the ability for a team to understand their roles and accomplish their goals on a global scale. But even the most effective leaders who foster trust and the conditions for teams to act autonomously can be undermined.

A study conducted by InterCall (an organization claiming to be the “world’s largest conferencing provider”) written by the company’s former Communications Director, Jill Huselton (now the Director of Marketing at FreeConferenceCall.com), notes something interesting, but perhaps not surprising. Ever wonder what happens on the other side of a conference call?

Photo Courtesy of Intercall – Hyperlink Contained Within Graphic

Sleeping-During-a-Conference-Callwhatelseareemployees

Trained as a social scientist I would of course like to vet the study myself. Unable to do so at this juncture I cautiously share it here. However, it is encouraging that the study was written about in some notable publications like the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

Ewers ended his discussion with a quote by Lao Tzu that spoke to the normative aspiration of what a successful leader accomplishes whether operating at a distance or not. Ewers writing was indeed an inspiration for the post here. With imitation signifying a sincere form of flattery I elect to follow his example even if the offering is less sanguine.

While Bauman was writing of circumstances infinitely more profound than anything offered in this post there is a resonant quote applicable here. Without physical interaction to sustain trust a pitfall of acting at a distance is that a “mediated experience enables only a similarly mediated response” (Bauman 2002 211).

Establishing trust within teams is indispensable to successfully fostering “pathways to progress,” and hence attainment of goals. Technologies facilitating these processes at a distance can be extraordinarily useful tools. Yet, it is not enough to maintain trust through ‘tele’ technologies and practices. They should absolutely be utilized, but it is imperative to not use them exclusively.

Luckily organizations like Psychology21C have a core mission to navigate these very challenges.

Andrew Horvitz

headshotOur Guest Blogger is an educator and researcher who has held positions in higher education, government, non-profits, and IT services. He writes and teaches about contemporary social issues positioned at the intersection of politics, culture, technology, and globalization. Andrew earned a BA in Political Science and Sociology, and a PhD in Sociology from the University at Albany, SUNY.