Ii/ii Virtual Teams: The Implications of Socio-Emotional Distance

“Every once in a while, people need to be in the presence of things that are really far away.”


- Ian Frazier -


Dear readers,

While in the previous article we’vetalked about proxemics, territoriality, and contact to introduce the topic of space management across different cultures, this week we’re going toexplore some of thefactors that influence the distance between members of a remote team from a socio-emotional perspective.

In his book "Management across Cultures: Developing Global Competencies", author Richard Steers identifies three types of global managers, namely Expatriates, Frequent Flyers, Virtual Managers:

Management focus and challenges


Principal management focus :

Long-term face-to-face management, where managers are either assigned to reside in a foreign country to oversee company operations or hired to bring special expertise to a foreign firm.

Primary mode of communication and interaction:

Largely face-to-face.

Key success factors for working across cultures

Typically requires deep knowledge of the culture(s) and culture-business relationships where they live and work; bilingual or multilingual skills important; understanding global issues – not just local ones – is also critical.

Typical cultural challenge (global management myopias)

Regional myopia: Overemphasis on local or regional issues and business practices at the expense of global issues and overall corporate objectives.

Frequent flyers

Principal management focus :

Short-term face-to-face management, where managers with particular expertise (e.g., project management, financial controls) are flown in to plan, implement, or control specific operations.

Primary mode of communication and interaction:

Balance of face-to-face and virtual.

Key success factors for working across cultures

Typically requires moderate understanding of cultural differences and dynamics in general and culture business relationships around the globe; multilingual skills important; deep understanding of global issues critical.

Typical cultural challenge (global management myopias)

Global myopia: Overemphasis on global issues and overall corporate objectives at the expense of local customs and business practices.

Virtual managers

Principal management focus :

Virtual (or remote) technical management in specialized areas (e.g., logistics, IT), where managers perform most of their tasks and responsibilities via information networks and digital technologies.

Primary mode of communication and interaction:

Largely virtual.

Key success factors for working across cultures

Typically requires at least a modest understanding of cultural differences and variations in business practices around the globe, although a deeper understanding is preferred; multilingual skills often useful.

Typical cultural challenge (global management myopias)

Technological myopia: Ignorance of the impact of cultural differences on the local uses, misuses, and applications of information, communication and technology.

(Source:"Management across Cultures: Developing Global Competencies",Exhibit 2.1 Global managers: expatriates, frequent flyers, and virtual managers)

Virtual managers, as implied by the definition, are those whose relationships with their teams are mediated by technology:

Common challenges in these scenarios are the lack of important face-to-face interactions (social research suggests that personal face-to-face interactions increase trust, while distance tends to lower it), the lack ofcontextual awareness (especially relevant if/when workers are based in different countries), assumptions and incorrect expectations about mutual knowledge, disruptions in communication happening across different time zones, relational distance and affiliation dynamics, the team size and its impact on the sense of belonging, the nature (or lack thereof) of pre-existing relationships.

Online interactions tend to be shorter and quicker than face-to-face interactions, and assumptions about people’s authenticity tend to be common (perhaps unsurprisingly, perceived authenticity is the foundation upon which trust perceptions are formed).

As mentioned in a previous article, a research conducted by Gallup in 2019 on “How to Manage the Loneliness and Isolation of Remote Workers” found that remote workers do often feel lonely and isolated, and concluded that while “Loneliness is emotional, isolation is structural”: geographical dispersion implicates that virtual meetings are difficult to arrange and they might happen outside the standard working hours for some workers.

Furthermore, members of virtual teams tend to be highly aware of their own external environment while they have little knowledge of the shared one.

Especially challenging are virtual relationships characterized by a a short shared history and a high degree of cultural diversity, for instance:

- some people rely on a direct communication style and on clear instructions to share knowledge and opinions, while some others tend to rely on contextual cues and unwritten rules and norms;

- some people might refrain from openly expressing disagreement in order to preserve harmony within the group and/or in order to save face;

- due to (mostly unconscious) power dynamics, the communication process might be unbalanced;

How can managers ensure that remote workers feel included and integrated?

Managers should take the lead and:

- create opportunities for on- and off-line socialization aimed at establishing connections and building trust;

- define clear communication norms and standards (e.g., clarify the criteria for task prioritization, suggest different ways to express disagreement in the virtual environment, etc.);

- ensure all employees have access to the same tools, resources, and information and that a consistent on-boarding process is followed for both remote and non remote workers;

- ensure common goals are set and are clear to all team members;

- ensure complex, interdependent tasks are equally distributed among the workers and are supported by regular discussions and feedback sessions;

- celebrate individual achievements and share them with the team.



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