In our ever-growing remote work culture, teams are increasingly vulnerable to virtual distance. Its three dimensions — physical, operational, and affinity distance — play critical roles in how well teams work together in a virtual environment and, particularly, in how managers delegate. Physical distance relates to the geographic distance between workers, while operational distance characterizes organizational processes that have the potential to facilitate or impede team collaboration. Affinity distance describes a sense of emotional and mental connection between individuals as a result of familiarity, interdependence, and a sense of shared purpose in the organization.
Managers of remote teams who improve their delegation skills can address virtual distance — the biggest impediment to their success — by leveraging delegation as a tool to close the gaps in physical, operational, and affinity distance. As our findings suggest, the strategic use of new collaboration technologies for delegation purposes can improve the quality of communication and technology fluency, which closes operational distance in remote teams. Similarly, gaps and divergence in purpose — which can make the difference between good and great teams — can be significantly narrowed by skillful delegation. For example, a manager who delegates what is deemed a make-or-break task, such as engaging with powerful stakeholders, can significantly reduce affinity distance for an employee who feels highly trusted for having been given such an opportunity.
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When managers can successfully delegate, it builds much-needed trust within remote teams and earns their commitment by getting them involved in crucial aspects of the work. The result is deep emotional and mental connection to other teammates and their work, which helps overcome the barriers of physical distance. Skillful delegation also reduces the chances of micromanagement and lack of trust.
Toward a New Definition of Delegation
Within this distanced-work context, leaders must reconsider conventional delegation methods. Delegation, stemming from the Latin word delegare, means “to send out as an ambassador or representative.” Traditional meanings of delegation include commissioning and appointing — such as a manager sending an employee to represent the company at a conference, or to attend an internal committee meeting on the manager’s behalf.
But in permanently remote or hybrid work environments, this definition has become complicated; online, these delegated tasks are a click away from both the delegator and the delegate.