Where’s the body? The physical dimension of virtual leadership


YouTube clips which visualise what a virtual meeting could look like in 'real life' pop up in my feed every now and again. These short clips visualise what it could look like if we moved our digital meeting room to a physical conference room where our Skype images, camera sequences and microphones were represented by our physical presence instead. One such example is the ad for Zoom, the conference service company, where the physical dimension plays a significant role in the turbulent meeting that is going on.

The physical dimension may not be a top priority or even be on someone’s mind when companies are conducting training or discussing virtual leadership but the perceived irrelevance can be questioned. In the book The Physicality of Leadership: Gesture, Entanglement, Taboo, Possibilities by Donna Ladkin and Steven Taylor (2014) one of the Chapters is called Disappearing bodies in virtual leadership? written by Donatella De Paoli, Arja Ropo and Erika Sauer. In the chapter, the authors question the technocratic view of virtual leadership such as non-bodily communication by presenting the physical dimension as an ingredient of virtual meetings. They use their own research project in an auto-ethnographic study and, in line with the tradition of Organizational aesthetics, they value mind-based sources of knowledge, which imply that sight, hearing, touch, smell and emotions are instruments in knowledge development. Regarding leadership, the authors define leadership as "an emerging process of relating and negotiating in which physical aspects are inherent in and entangled with what is being discussed". Therefore, they do not see leadership from an entity perspective where leadership is tied to an individual, a leader, but as a process filled with a spectrum of contributors to the relating and negotiating that provides direction. Furthermore, they demonstrate the paradox that research conducted in virtual leadership highlights technology as a problem-generator when it comes to communication and leadership while simultaneously technology is seen as the solution to the problems.

After clarifying their epistemological and ontological foundation, the authors write that most of the literature in virtual leadership disregards the physical body. They believe that the physical dimension, albeit in digital form (moving camera images, microphone voices, Skype photos), should be taken seriously in virtual leadership because attention given to peoples’ bodies can have a greater impact on leadership in the virtual room than in the physical conference room and that it should thus be given higher priority. From their own research process, they provide numerous examples of how the physical body is present in virtual meetings. They conclude that the sensitivity of physically relating to employees or managers increases in the virtual context and give examples such as how attention to the video images in Skype is great, for example, which means that most nuances based on the physical dimension of the participants are noticed in the virtual meeting room.

One angle on this is that in the physical conference room we are unable to pay attention to the physical dimension of others to the same extent. This may be partly due to greater competition for attention in the physical space. In the virtual meeting room, by contrast, we experience 'everything' on screen – we can even see where the noise has come from by looking at the sound indicator in the form of, for example, a blue line under the participants' image. The authors further emphasise the awareness of one's own body, one's own physical dimension, and argue that in virtual meetings we become aware of our own body in a way that we do not experience in physical meetings. During a physical meeting, we simply do not view or experience ourselves in the same way as we do in virtual meetings. In virtual meetings we constantly experience our own physical dimension in relation to the physical dimension of other participants. This implies that, on the one hand, technology limits the physical dimension through, for example, poor resolution, and on the other hand, enables and intensifies it.

The authors conclude that “The recognition of the physical dimension of leadership opens opportunities and widens the understanding of leadership by demonstrating hidden and unrecognised sensual ways of relating to each other. Emphasis on daily happenings in virtual group meetings includes physical practices such as speaking, listening, staring, touching (even virtually), and acknowledging feelings and emotions. They believe that these practices are sources to the emerging process of relating that includes the physical dimension, which is what they define as leadership.

By paying attention to the physical dimension of co-creators of leadership, that is, the physical dimension of all contributors to the relating and negotiating that provides direction, can provide a different experience of the meeting in the Zoom advertisement or, for that matter, of any other virtual meeting. Omitting the physical dimension of virtual leadership is being challenged and it is a challenge that should be taken seriously given the widespread virtual nature of today's working life.

Anna Uhlin