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relationships dispersed communication team

Stacey L. Connaughton
Purdue University, USA


At the dawn of the 21 st century, more and more organizations in various industries have adopted geographically dispersed work groups and are utilizing advanced technologies to communicate with them (Benson-Armer & Hsieh, 1997; Hymowitz, 1999; Townsend, DeMarie & Hendrickson, 1998; Van Aken, Hop & Post, 1998). This geographical dispersion varies in form. For example, some organizations have adopted “telecommuting,” in which members may work at home, on the road and/or at the office (Hymowitz, 1999). Other organizations have created teams that are globally dispersed. A leader located in Palo Alto, California, for example, may be responsible for coordinating employees in Belgium, China and Mexico.

This article examines the role of communication and multimedia in leading people across time and space. To do so, I first note the significance of distanced work relationships; then, outline various conceptualizations of “distance” evident in the literature; next, discuss the role of multimedia in those relationships; and conclude by forecasting future trends. Throughout the article, the term “distanced leadership” is used to refer to leadership in geographically dispersed contexts.


New organizational forms have become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Indeed, many contemporary organizations and teams span time and space. Physical separation of organizational and/or team members is a defining characteristic of virtual organizations and teams (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998; Majchrzak, Rice, King, Malhotra & Ba, 2000; Warkentin, Sayeed & Hightower, 1997; Wiesenfeld, Raghuram & Garud, 1999), geographically dispersed teams (Connaughton & Daly, 2003, 2004a, 2004b; Shockley-Zalabak, 2002), dispersed network organizations (Rosenfeld, Richman & May, 2004) and telework operations (Hylmo & Buzzanell, 2002; Leonardi, Jackson & Marsh, 2004; Scott & Timmerman, 1999). In these forms, the organization or team is constituted in its interaction and formal and informal networks. By 2005, 20% of the world’s work force is expected to work virtually (Prashad, 2003). Indeed, scholars have called on leadership scholarship to “stretch its boundaries to match the elastic nature of global work” (Davis, 2003, p. 48).

Geographical dispersion affords organizations both opportunities and challenges to both business and communication. Table 1 summarizes these issues as they often appear in the literature.

On the one hand, geographically dispersed teams present organizations with many opportunities. They can help organizations maximize productivity and lower costs (Davenport & Pearlson, 1998). And, they can enable organizations to serve international customers and capitalize on globally dispersed talent (Majchrzak, Rice, King, Malhotra & Ba, 2000; Zaccaro & Bader, 2003). Ideally, this geographical dispersion is designed to foster productivity from, and cooperation among, organizational members, just as if they were co-located with one another (see Handy, 1995; Upton & McAfee, 1996).

Yet geographical dispersion also poses some challenges, specifically with regard to leadership. Previous research indicates that (a) a leader’s “social presence” may be more difficult to achieve in distanced settings (Kiesler & Sproull, 1992; Warkentin, Sayeed & Hightower, 1997); (b) trust among leaders and team members may be swift yet fleeting (Jarvenpaa, Knoll & Leidner, 1998); © members’ identification with the team, organization, and leader may be challenged over distance (Connaughton & Daly, 2004b); and (d) communication among leaders and team members may be complicated by diverse ethnic, communication and organizational backgrounds (Cascio, 1999; Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003).

These challenges are put into perspective when one compares what may take place in physically proximate offices to what often happens in distanced work relationships. It has been suggested that co-located office settings provide more opportunities for organizational members to communicate frequently and spontaneously with each other; they allow for potential to interact immediately for troubleshooting; they foster a forum in which to directly access information; and they enable the development and maintenance of relationships (Davenport & Pearlson, 1998). Often, leaders who are colocated with their team members develop and energize relationships with their team through informal as well as formal interaction. In globally dispersed organizations, however, there may be fewer opportunities to informally communicate, leaving some distanced employees feeling isolated from their leaders and from events that take place at the central organization (Van Aken, Hop & Post, 1998; Wiesenfeld, Raghuram & Garud, 1998).


Research on distanced work relationships, including that related to leadership, defines “distance” in different ways. Some scholars examine physical distance, when individuals and leaders are separated by geography (see Antonakis & Atwater, 2002; Kerr & Jermier, 1978). Other scholars investigate social or psychosocial distance, which often refers to perceived differences in status, rank, authority, social standing and power among leaders and followers, all of which may affect the intimacy and social interactions that take place between leaders and followers (see Antonakis & Atwater, 2002; Napier & Ferris, 1993).

Some researchers conceive of physical distance and social distance as related constructs, functioning in a similar manner (see Howell & Hall-Merenda, 1999). Others argue that physical distance and social distance are distinct and should be considered as separate constructs in research. Among them, Antonakis and Atwater (2002) also add a third dimension of distance, perceived interaction frequency, which they define as the perceived degree to which leaders interact with their followers. They propose that physical distance, social distance and perceived interaction frequency are measurable and are separate dimensions, each of which describes an element of “distance” in dispersed work relationships.

Other research examines how individuals perceive distance in geographically dispersed work contexts. For example, in a study of 46 teleworkers in a variety of industries, Leonardi, Jackson and Marsh (2004) argue that these individuals manage distance in various ways. The authors conclude that dispersed individuals do not all perceive distance similarly, and that they manipulate the fact that they are geographically distant from others in order to satisfy individual needs. In the authors’ words, “… distance is much more than a mere outcome of the use of ICTs; it is rather a tool virtual team members can use to manage their relationships with their coworkers and their organizations” (p. 169).


The published work on multimedia, communication technologies and dispersed leadership can be grouped into two broad categories: that which discusses effective practices for using media to forge connections across time and space; and that which addresses key assumptions in previous research, particularly with respect to the perceived necessity of face-to-face interaction and to the impact physical distance has on work relationships.

Effective Practices

Some published work advances effective practices, highlighting various ways that leaders can utilize multiple media to foster connections with distanced employees across time and space. Among the recommendations, researchers have noted: (a) the creation of Web sites, where project managers can post their “lessons learned” and share effective practices with leaders at other sites; (b) the utilization of electronic forums to advertise what “works” in the regions and to propagate those ideas to headquarters and other remote sites; and © the development of internal electronic bulletin boards (one devoted to leaders; another devoted to members), where project leaders and team members can ask questions and receive suggestions from other project leaders and members (see Burtha & Connaughton, 2004; Connaughton & Daly, 2003). Majchrzak, Malhotra, Stamps and Lipnack (2004) note that these virtual work spaces should be considered more than “networked drives with shared files” (p. 134). These virtual work spaces must be accessible to everyone at all times, and a place where the team is reminded of its mission, purpose, decisions and future objectives.

In addition to explaining effective practices, existing research advances propositions about which media function particularly well to achieve various leadership objectives. One of these works is based on a series of interviews with distanced leaders about what media they perceive to be effective in executing various leadership functions across time and space (Connaughton & Daly, 2003). Distanced leaders interviewed in this study perceive that face-to-face communication is optimal for achieving objectives, but acknowledge that it is not always possible when employees and team members are dispersed. The research findings suggest that face-to-face communication is best used to set vision, reach policy decisions and begin to build relationships. When face to face is not an option, regularly scheduled telephone calls are most effectively used to exchange important task-related information, maintain relationships, appraise performance and coordinate teams. And, electronic mail (e-mail) is most effective to exchange technical information, give specific directions, update interested parties and maintain relationships. (For further discussion of technologies and virtual contexts, see Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990; Ferris & Minielli, 2004; Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998; Majchrzak, Rice, King, Malhotra & Ba, 2000.)

Addressing Assumptions of Previous Research

Recent work on distanced leadership has begun to carefully consider two assumptions about working in dispersed contexts. Those assumptions are: (a) that face-to-face communication is related to organizational outcomes; and (b) that physical distance necessarily is an impediment to productive and satisfying work relationships.

  • Assumption: Face-to-face communication is critical . It has been argued that, despite the existence of new media, face-to-face communication is still vitally important to achieving organizational outcomes (Cohen & Prusak, 2001). Some scholarship compares experiences of individuals working proximately with one another (and who can communicate face to face) with individuals working apart from one another. For instance, Warkentin, Sayeed and Hightower (1997) found that face-to-face group members perceive greater team cohesion, and more satisfaction with both the group interaction process and group outcomes than did their distanced counterparts. One conclusion that could be drawn from this research is that individuals prefer to work in close proximity to leaders.

    Zack (1994) and Alge, Wiethoff and Klein (2003) found, however, that although initial face-to-face interactions are quite helpful for teamwork, as time goes on and team members come to better understand one another, mediated communication such as e-mail could be used to accomplish tasks. Scholars are also beginning to explore the processes of teams who never meet face to face and yet still function (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002; Davis, 2003). Continued research in this area may challenge the assumption that face-to-face communication is a necessary ingredient of effective distanced work relationships.

  • Assumption: Physical distance necessarily challenges work relationships . Previous research on distanced work relationships assumes that physical distance complicates performance and leader-follower relationships because distance makes it difficult for leaders to engage in relational and task-related behaviors with followers (see Kerr & Jermier, 1978; Olson & Olson, 2000). Often, scholars contrast distanced leadership with proximate leadership, and claim that physical proximity enables more effective communication between leaders and followers (Yagil, 1998).

    However, the perceived accessibility of people in the distanced relationship may matter in predicting important outcomes as well (Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003; Napier & Ferris, 1993). Perceived accessibility refers to the distanced employees’ perception that they can contact or reach their leader when so desired. Indeed, previous research has suggested that frequent interaction is critical to establishing a feeling of connection across time and space (Antonakis & Atwater, 2002; Connaughton & Daly, 2004b; Leonardi et al., 2004). And, distance may be perceived in positively valenced ways. As Leonardi et al. (2004) have argued, distance may be strategically managed by some distanced leaders and employees to be an opportunity rather than a necessary impediment to work relationships.


Thousands of companies in diverse industries now have distanced leaders (see Apgar, 1998; Bryan & Fraser, 1999; Hymowitz, 1999; Lipnack & Stamps, 1997; McCune, 1998). And these leaders face the complex task of managing people who are separated from organizational headquarters by time and space.

Future investigations should consider related organizational trends. For instance, does leadership of geographically dispersed ad hoc teams (that are assembled for short-term projects) differ from the type of distanced leadership described here? If so, how? How does one manage contractors and consultants (who may not have loyalty to the organization) from afar? And, given trends in international customer service, how do organizations effectively serve and lead customers from afar?

Future researchers should also continue to develop theoretical models of distanced leadership as well as continue to conduct empirical work on these and other variables. For instance, it will be important to investigate whether actual physical distance per se is the most essential defining feature of a dispersed relationship. Instead, perhaps physical distance and access to leaders and team members function together to affect relationships and outcomes.

Another important issue for both scholars and practitioners is the assumption made by many that distanced teams have more difficulty than face-to-face teams. That presumption warrants empirical testing. The leaders we have talked with in our research have been quite insistent that face-to-face exchanges offer them the optimal medium for communication. None of the leaders interviewed consider mediated technologies as being effective for handling personnel issues, conflicts and relational development. Yet a question arises: Are these responses tied to levels of experience and training with the technologies, generational differences or other factors? It may be that with more experience using various technologies for communication and more perceived expertise with them that people’s preference for face-to-face communication for various tasks may diminish. Future research may find that some distanced employees actually prefer mediated communication with their leader.


As organizations become more global, as talent becomes more dispersed and as technologies enable people to do far more from afar, distanced leadership and dispersed work relationships will continue to be important to organizations in the 21 st century. Given those trends, the issues discussed in this chapter will become ever more critical for scholars and practitioners to consider.

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