The Real Impacts of Virtual Distance

Posted October 7th, 2021 by Urban Legal Recruitment

We have been thinking a lot about the concept of Virtual Distance lately, and how the shift from in-person to digital interaction is far more consequential than we might have imagined. 

Now that most of us have become familiar, and even comfortable, with electronic communication, the assumption might be that we can achieve the same levels of human connection and productivity from the comfort of our own home offices.

According to Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, that is not the case. There are serious, unintended consequences of routinely communicating through devices rather than face to face. Dr. Sobel-Lojeski created the Virtual Distance model that systematically measures, and helps to address, these unintended consequences.

Virtual Distance is a “measure of what is lost when the human being is translated through a machine.” Virtual Distance is not a conceptual or theoretical model, but uses evidence backed data collected from more than 1400 studies across more than 55 countries.

Why it matters

The numbers are staggering. In teams with high Virtual Distance, which refers to psychological and emotional disconnection from each other: 

  • trust declines by over 80 percent;
  • cooperative and helping behaviours go down by over 80 percent;
  • role and goal clarity decline by 75 percent;
  • project success drops by over 50 percent; and
  • organizational commitment and satisfaction decline by more than 50 percent.

It’s easy to assume that physical separation or time zone gaps are primarily to blame for Virtual Distance, but they’re not. Teams that work in the same location can have much higher Virtual Distance than those that are dispersed. Anyone who’s worked on multiple teams can attest to the fact that proximity does not necessarily assure trust and connection. 

Dr. Sobel-Lojeski identified three factors that determine Virtual Distance.

  1. Physical distance: geographic or time-zone differences
  2. Operational distance: the processes and the way teams work that either helps them collaborate or conspires to keep them at a distance. Operational distance refers to a lack of shared context and understanding, miscommunication that can confuse and frustrate, or technical issues, like a failing Zoom connection or a conference call with a bad connection.
  3. Affinity distance: the cultural differences and communication styles of members, where they are located in the hierarchy (and whether their contributions are recognized), how well they know each other, and whether they have a shared sense of mission.

Interestingly, the data shows that affinity distance has, by far, the greatest effect on innovation, trust, learning, and other team outcomes.

What can be done

Here are just a few simple ways for leaders to help decrease their teams’ Virtual Distance. 

  1. Encourage team members to get to know each other. Build in time at the beginning of every meeting for a personal and professional check-in.
  2. Ensure team members have access to reliable technology, and access to collaboration tools, training and support. 
  3. Whenever possible, pair team members to work on projects to encourage one-to-one bonding, which will carry over and have a positive effect on the larger group. 
  4. Clearly and continually communicate the mission and goals of the work and how the team’s activities align. 
  5. Schedule one-on-one time with each of your team members to listen, coach, and mentor. This time is not to get a status report on their work but rather an opportunity to build trust.
  6. Give people the choice to turn off their video once the meeting is underway and they’re not speaking. 
  7. Implement a no-meeting day to provide relief from electronic communications and allow people to recharge.
  8. Encourage team members to reach out to each other for quick informal chats (like you would have in a coffee room or elevator). 

A new and enhanced role has emerged for leaders as people continue to work in heightened uncertainty due to COVID. It’s up to leaders to lift the veil of Virtual Distance, and to adopt a people-first approach. 

“In my daily conversations with lawyers, I am frequently hearing from many of my  junior to mid level associates that they are struggling and feeling a lack of connection in the virtual world they are navigating,” says Stacy Cowan, Urban Legal Recruitment Founder, and Partner, Associate and In-House Legal Recruitment. “They are missing that sense of community that comes from in-person strategizing sessions and social activities such as lunches, coffee and drinks after work with their clients and colleagues. ”

Whenever possible, employers need to continue investing in employee wellness by checking in with them, and going beyond a simple “how are you?” Ask specific questions and really listen.

“I have seen a significant increase in anxiety and depression amongst candidates. For the most part, I believe we are still social creatures who thrive on connection from meeting people in person,” according to Stacy. “These connections can't be fully replicated virtually in my opinion.”


Life. Career. Opportunity Awaits. If you have any questions, are considering a change, or just want to chat, we would love to hear from you.
At Urban Legal Recruitment, we have experienced, along with our clients, the impacts of COVID-19.  We’ve made the necessary adjustments to ensure the safety of our team members and our clients.