How to Engage the New Remote Volunteers

In Part I of this post, I discussed the changing nature of the workplace and how technological advances affect how we can work with remote volunteers.  In today’s world, most volunteers are both virtual and mobile — even those that work on-site — because many already access information, communicate, and collaborate via a variety of personal virtual devices like tablets, smartphones, and laptops.

I also noted that the future success of volunteer programs may hinge on whether or not we are prepared to support volunteers in this new team environment.  In this post, I focus more on what you can actually do to help your volunteers feel more connected to you, each other, and your cause even when they don’t come into the office every day.

Understanding Virtual Distance and How to Lead Remote Volunteers

Virtual leadership expert Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski has conducted extensive research on how technology affects performance on the job.  In her book, Leading the Virtual Workforce, she presents the idea of “Virtual Distance,” which relates to the physical and emotional distances created by technology that keeps us, ironically, from connecting.  It is the responsibility of leaders to find ways to reduce this distance.

Virtual Distance is exacerbated by three factors:

  • Physical Distance — for example, the different work schedules, departmental silos, and worksites
  • Operational Distance — caused by everyday communication breakdowns, multitasking, and low morale
  • Affinity Distance — reflecting the effect of personal relationships, cultural dynamics, interdependence on productivity

Of the three, addressing the Affinity Distance between team members (how teams are connected emotionally and mentally) can have the most impact on how well virtual teams, including volunteers, can work together.

Virtual and Mobile Leadership in Practice

So what can be done to lead remote volunteers and reduce the effects of Affinity Distance? In some respects, this is more difficult than addressing Physical or Operational Distance, but the research shows that the most direct way to address gaps is to focus on limiting this trouble spot.

Dr. Sobel-Lojeski identifies four relationship dynamics that feed Affinity Distance.  Below are some of my solutions to address each:

  • Reduce Perceived Cultural Distance — This relates to team member values, not so much individual demographics.
  • What You Can Do: Bring volunteers from different departments together (online or off) increase functional partnerships; ensure that volunteer teams are layered with diverse cultures, communication styles, and points of view; facilitate candid, respectful conversations to build shared understanding; develop shared norms for virtual communication; and openly celebrate differences and welcome a variety of modes of online communication.
  • Reduce Perceived Social Distance — This relates to the status within groups and whether members believe there is a level playing field.
  • What You Can Do: Actively recognize volunteer value based on their contributions rather than their job title; acknowledge volunteers as equal contributors in the organization’s mission delivery; encourage visits and participation of organizational leaders in virtual volunteer events; and ensure that all volunteers have equal access to online tools by using responsive web design and clear instructions on how to join groups.
  • Reduce Perceived Relationship Distance — This relates to the connections people have with one another from past projects; this can be a challenge with new volunteers who don’t know one another.
  • What You Can Do: Highlight “friends in common”; weave informal social interaction and chat into virtual meetings and training; arrange face-to-face meetings at the beginning of projects, when possible, and include social mixers in the agenda; set up an online “buddy system” for new volunteers to welcome them and orient them to the tech tools in use; facilitate online “getting to know you” exercises and chats to help volunteers surface commonalities.
  • Reduce Perceived Interdependence Distance — This relates to the belief that team members are mutually dependent on one another to be successful.
  • What You Can Do: Work with virtual volunteers to develop project-based charters that include a collaboratively-developed vision statement; actively share individual volunteer and team accomplishments in social networks and the organization’s website; consistently and explicitly link volunteer activity with program goals; offer “virtual tours” of the organizations “back office” and “insider” operations; invite volunteer leaders to present via video chat at board and coalition meetings.

These are only a few ideas.  You may use others that work well to increase connection and reduce the distance at your organization.  If so, please share what you do in the comments link.  We’d love to add them to our list!!

Further Your Learning

If you’re wondering which online collaboration tools might work for your program, check out these articles to get a running start: