Both conventional wisdom and decades of academic study hold that we tend to feel closest to those that we are in close physical proximity with. But many scholars have begun to question this truism. Research has tended to focus, however, on objective, geographic distance. This has generally led to conflicting and inconsistent findings, vis-à-vis the relationship between distance and a variety of critical processes and consequences, (e.g. communication and performance within professional teams).
INSEAD Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour Anca Metiu and co-authors Jeanne Wilson, Michael Boyer O'Leary and Quintus Jett develop the concept of subjective distance as a "critical, but under-specified factor in the effectiveness of virtual work arrangements", and describe a model of the factors they see shaping it.
The authors suggest that personal, social, task-based and organisational factors greatly affect how people experience distance. "This experience-based conceptualisation of subjective distance", in their view, helps reconcile the generally inconsistent findings of most academics studying the phenomenon, which they feel are "partly due to a focus on objective physical distance".
The authors define subjective distance as "an individual's cognitive and affective representations of the distances between them and their team-mates. In illustrating practical examples of subjective and objective distances, they note that teams with high levels of objective distance - for example, the types of teams that have characterised so much top software development in recent years, quite typically involving vast spatial and temporal differences - do not necessarily have high levels of subjective distance. As the authors point out, "being physically proximate to team members doesn't always lead to feelings of closeness or collegiality...".
"Like trust and conflict, subjective distance has cognitive and affective dimensions, while objective distance does not. The cognitive dimension refers to a mental assessment of how distant a teammate seems.... The affective dimension recognises that people's sense of subjective distance is not a purely conscious or rational assessment; it is subject to emotions and feelings."
The paper details the sophisticated processes by which subjective distance is formed, involving communication; identification processes; individual factors; openness to experience; need for affiliation; experience with dispersed work, technology and travel; social factors; perceived similarities between team members; status differences between team members, and role centrality within team or between team sub-groups.
In addition to the social factors within a dispersed team, the authors also propose that any given dispersed team's task affects subjective distance between members. "The level of members' commitment to task goals and task interdependence are important factors that shape subjective distance through their effects on identification and communication processes".
After describing the many and varied moderators of task, social and organisational factors, the authors expound on their subjective distance concept, suggesting it "explains why we can feel close to people we rarely, if ever, see". In considering the implications for further research of their findings, they posit, "patterns of individual subjective distance within teams have implications for team-level outcomes".
Moreover, they call for further investigation as to whether work groups need a certain minimal level of subjective proximity in order to function effectively. Also, they point out that the effects of subjective distance also warrant further scholarly investigation: "at the individual and dyadic levels, we expect that the level of subjective distance will predict willingness to work together in the future, and beliefs about the efficacy of working at a distance".