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Leadership on Distance: The Effects of Distance on Communication, Trust and Motivation

Leadership on Distance: The Effects of Distance on Communication, Trust and Motivation
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Author(s): Svein Bergum (Eastern Norway Research Institute, Norway) and Jan Tore Selvik (Norweigan Public Road Admin., Norway)
Copyright: 2005
Pages: 9
Source title: Managing Modern Organizations Through Information Technology
Source Editor(s): Mehdi Khosrow-Pour (Information Resources Management Association, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-822-2.ch079


In almost all studies of management of telework, the leader is at the office and his subordinates are located at a distance, either at home or mobile at other remote locations (Bergum, 2000). In this case study we will report from a different type of project, where the leaders are the mobile teleworkers, visiting their subordinates at 3-6 locations. Norwegian National Road Administration (NNRA) are using telework as part of their organisational development process. This is a large organisation by Norwegian standards, with 12.000 employees. According to internal reports, 25% of these workers might be teleworkers in the future. An interesting aspect of this organisational development process is that some strategic and tactical competence functions have been decentralized from Oslo, located at the regional offices. Some of these regional offices were re-established and decentralized on the initiative of the Norwegian Minister of Transport and Communication a couple of years ago. Vertical differentiation of the organisation is reduced, resulting in a reduced number of leaders and more management over distance (telemanagement). Like many other organisations, both public and private, NNRA is reducing the number of regional administrations in larger geographical regions. Surprisingly, most of the administrations of these regional offices are decentralized to medium sized places in Norway. Most of the people will however still work from their previous work locations. Many workers have to change their jobs because of regional specializations, where regional competence centres are formed. The new leaders at these larger regional administrative offices are often located at new places. Several of the factors mentioned above are driving forces in the development of telework. Telework in this organisation mostly means that leaders have to be mobile to manage a larger number of subordinates at other locations than their own. This means the “telemanagers” have to travel a lot to meet their remote workers. But NNRA have also invested a lot in modern communication systems, including videoconferencing. The leaders therefore need to decide where to work, and to achieve a balance between face to face and virtual communication. Besides the decisions on locations and media-choise with their subordinates, the leaders also have to consider other distance dependencies. Telework has mostly focused on the distance between leader and subordinate. Leaders in NNRA also have other distance dimensions, for example towards: customers, suppliers, other internal functions/departments, public authorities etc. The leaders therefore have complicated decisions to make regarding locations, media use and communication patterns. In this paper we will focus on the effects of distance on the relationship between the distant and mobile telemanager and their staff. A questionnaire was distributed via email to 228 employees in the East Region of NNRA. 176 of these employees answered, which give a response rate of 82%. This high figure could partly be explained by the fact that one of the authors works for the NNRA. The unit of analysis is there the individual employee and their attitudes and experiences with managers at a distance. In the population we also have employees that have their leaders collocated, so there are possibilities for comparisons based on different type of distances. Based on earlier research on telework by the authors, for example Bergum, 2000, the focus variables selected for the study are: communication and media choice, motivation, trust and control, as well as descriptive questions about distance. Besides the variable geographical distance, we also included “frequency of contact” as a perceived measure of distance. A main finding from this study is that geographical distance has far less importance for the variables studies than the frequency of contacts between telemanager and (tele)workers. Results show that a contact frequency of once a week gave positive results. On several of the questions, respondents with such a frequency had a higher score than employees that met their leader several times a week. A possible explanation of this, based on earlier research and additional interview with one of the telemanagers in NNRA, is that this weekly meeting is effective, focusing on both personal matters, besides professional planning and follow-up. Another main finding from this study is that telemanagers are travelling a lot, prefer face to face communication and some email communication, but have very little telephone communication or videoconferencing. These results could be explained by a modest communication need in this organisation or experienced workers with independent jobs. A third explanation is that they are planning well, reducing the communication needs between the regular face to face meetings. A next phase of research could include a follow up on leaders to get their reactions on these answers, for example why once a week seems to be an optimal contact frequency. Further explorations of the differences between different types of distance-concepts, should also be analysed: why does contact frequency has much more impact than geographical distance.

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