Beyond Being There: The Symbolic Role of Communication and Identification in Perceptions of Proximity to Geographically Dispersed Colleagues

Authors, Title and Publication

Boyer O’Leary, M., Wilson, J. M., & Metiu, A. (2014). Beyond being there: The symbolic role of communication and identification in perceptions of proximity to geographically dispersed colleagues. MIS Quarterly38(4), 1219-A7.

This study explored how communication and shared meaning affect peoples’ perceptions of the geographic distances between themselves and their colleagues, and how those perceptions affect relationship quality. The authors developed the concept of perceived proximity, which is perceived cognitive and affective senses of relational closeness created through communication, shared identity, and the symbolic aspects. Then, they compared how perceived proximity and objective distance relate to relationship quality for collocated and geographically dispersed work colleagues.

Through an international survey of more than 600 people and 1,300 dyadic work relationships and mixed-method analysis of quantitative and qualitative data, the researchers found that colleagues working at a distance communicated no less frequently on average than colleagues who were co-located in the same office. In addition, the co-located and dispersed colleagues had virtually identical average levels of shared identity and perceived proximity. As a symbolic construct, perceived proximity is related to two other symbolic processes: communication and shared identity. Perceived proximity mediates the connections between communication and relationship quality, and between identification and relationship quality. An examination of potential bases for identification indicated that shared personal values and commitment to the work were most influential (ahead of more surface-level factors such as age and gender). Perceived proximity, the symbolic representation of one’s faraway coworkers, is a powerful force shaping important outcomes in today’s workplace. The impact of perceived proximity on work relationships outweighs objective proximity.

Implications for Practice

Organizations should 1) encourage frequent communication between distant workers to form strong bonds; 2) develop an information system (including adopting emerging social media tools) to forge strong relationships with faraway others; 3) utilize various communication channels to convey shared meaning and symbolic values and foster shared organizational identification; and 4) develop a collaborative and relationship-oriented culture to unite employees.

Location of Article

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