Understanding virtual distance may help us communicate better and feel more connected. Virtual distance refers to a perceived gap in relations. When building strong and potentially long-term work and study relations, understanding virtual distance is useful. Paying attention to the quality of collaboration and communication with coworkers is worth exploring. This paper considers how virtual distance could appear in study and work relationships at university.

Author: Heidi Myyryläinen

Understanding virtual distance in a university

Lojeski (2006, 50) defines virtual distance as “the perceived distance between two or more people, groups, or organizations brought on by the pervasive and persistent use of computer-mediated communication and work technology”. In many cases high quality communication and collaboration make a difference at work. Fostering skilled culture for communication and collaboration is good for people. And when people are more engaged, motivated and focused in goal-oriented collaboration, it supports also organizational goals.

This phenomenon is also important in universities, because many roles require good connections. Universities are connected and dynamic institutions in many ways. In this connectedness, connections between individuals play a role. Therefore, the nature of collaboration makes a difference.

When virtual distance is low, communication and collaboration is effortless, easy and natural. With low virtual distance, people see each other as benevolent, honest and capable. (Lojeski and Reilly 2020) Therefore, it is useful to individuals and organizations to intentionally remove barriers that create a sense of distance when aiming to nurture collaboration. Lojeski and Reilly (2020) present a framework for understanding, measuring, and managing virtual distance in teams and organizations. They suggest there are three categories of disconnection or distance. However, it is not always as straightforward as one would think. There are paradoxes, too. The most obvious dimension of distance is “physical distance”. In Lojeski´s and Reilly´s theory it refers to time, place, organizational affiliations and circumstances. However, being physically in a same space does not directly mean people would have a close sense of connection. Lojeski and Reilly (2020) demonstrate an example, open spaces. Whereas open spaces bring people together physically, they have surprisingly been shown to diminish in-person interaction.

There are many examples of physical distance in university life, encompassing differing times, locations and organizational affiliations. For example, when a teacher organizes a virtual classroom and invites lecturer in another country, they need to schedule the event considering the times zones. Organizers and lecturers also represent different institutions. When thinking of organizational affiliations, this levels already leads to some expectations. If the lecturer comes from a small firm, university or international organization, the expectations may vary. At university these encounters are common for many students, teachers, innovators and researchers. Video conferencing tools overcome physical distance and many tools allow sharing regardless of time and physical location. A lecture can be even recorded, allowing participants to have access to lecture later, too. This is an interesting extension of accessibility. Conversely, the nature of a session, whether it’s one-directional or interactive with a more personal experience, influences the sense of connection. This type of experience leads us to exploring the deeper layers of understanding virtual distance.

The physical distance – time, place and affiliations are only a surface level of virtual distance. Lojeski and Reilly (2020) see that the next, more important level creating distance comes from operational distance. It refers to structures, processes, communication problems or technological problems that facilitate or hinder studying, working, and collaborating. There are numerous issues, starting from the timely access to information, needed materials, and interactions. Sense of distance may come from challenges communicating with peers or instructors. This involves language skills that allow connecting through conversations. If people experience multiload, this may add virtual distance. Technical issues are typically easiest to solve but a learning or working environment that facilitates sense of connections requires more than internet connection. Yet, technical issues are important too. A virtual environment that fosters a sense of communication has successfully managed reduce many kinds of operational virtual distance: the level of skills, processes and structures for collaboration are good. One aspect in this area are professional communities – students grown to be members in their professional fields, learning the terminology and social practices in the field. The professions represent an interesting aspect building collegial communities, building closeness within own profession.

Lojeski and Reilly (2020) note that there is a level that is even more influential than operational distance – affinity distance. This dimension is hardest to lead yet it is the most essential. It is about the depth of relationships, human interdependencies and shared values. Study and work life at university offers multiple opportunities for development of shared views. Students, teachers or experts come from various backgrounds, leading to differences in perspectives and experiences yet open dialogue allows shared views to develop. In some forms of learning, students work interdependently. For example, students who establish an enterprise during their studies as a group, learn to work highly interdependently and share the same goals.

Higher education communities can manage virtual distance

Understanding virtual distance is fundamental for understanding the quality of institutional and person-to-person relationships. In this text, I imagined only a few examples of this complex phenomenon. But ultimately creating connections is not rocket science. For individual managers and entrepreneurs, virtual distance explains the context of interpersonal collaboration, there are elements both facilitating and hindering the sense of connection – and these can be influenced. (Lojeski and Reilly 2020; Lauring 2023; Myyryläinen et al. 2024)

Managing virtual distance in a university is a wide task that requires skills from all levels in an organization, starting from governing university to planning and facilitating learning experiences as well as participating to projects. At the end of the day, individuals facilitate a sense of meaningful connections and collaborations. Recognizing the significance of managing virtual distance brings value to individuals and organizations. Remote collaboration and communication can be upgraded with thoughtful approaches.

References

Lauring, J. & Jonasson, C. 2023. How is work group inclusiveness influenced by working virtually? Human Resource Management Review, 33(2), 100930–. Cited 3 June 2024. Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2022.100930

Lojeski, K. S. 2006. Virtual DistanceTM: A Proposed Model for the Study of Virtual Work. Thesis (PhD). Stevens Institute of Technology.

Lojeski, K. S., Reilly, R. R. 2020. The Power of Virtual Distance: A Guide to Productivity and Happiness in the Age of Remote Work. 2nd edition. Newark: Wiley.

Myyryläinen, H. Torkkeli, L. Durst, S. 2024. Individuals and virtual distance in remote B2B relations. In Ivanova-Gongne, M., Torkkeli, L., Koporcic, N., & Barner-Rаsmussen, W. (Eds.). Individuals in B2B Marketing: Sensemaking and Action in Context (1st ed.). Routledge. Cited 3rd June 2024. Available at https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003388036

Author

Heidi Myyryläinen is an RDI Specialist in LAB University of Applied Sciences.

Illustration: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/710499 (CC0)

Published 20.6.2024

Reference to this article

Myyryläinen, H. 2024. Exploring virtual distance – examples from university world. LAB Pro. Cited and the date of citation. Available at https://www.labopen.fi/lab-pro/exploring-virtual-distance-examples-from-university-world/