Can there be Trust In Virtual Teams?

Who doesn’t know the importance of trust is in the workplace? Okay, so maybe we don’t all get the significance of it, but that’s a topic for another article. Let’s assume trust is the most critical element of the workplace and, in particular, teams.

With huge demands, competition and the pace of technology, the need to collaborate has never been more urgent. Collaboration means coming together formally on a team, structurally defined for the purposes of the organization or, informally (ad hoc) to respond quickly and efficiently to time-sensitive goals.

In both cases, the ability for teams to work effectively hinges on the level of trust the members develop. We know from the work of Patrick Lencioni in his The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, without trust and commitment, results are hard to achieve.

It starts with all team members agreeing and knowing the critical elements of trust. Each must practice fairness, honesty, openness, exceptional listening skills, respect toward others’ expertise, and candor without being competitive or passive. This creates the space for members to be vulnerable, test out ideas, be creative and influence each other toward optimum results.

But what if your team is virtual? You’ve never, if ever, met your teammates in person and you all live in different locations and time zones. How easy would it be to build trust? Is it even possible?

The short answer is: it can be.

Recently working with leaders in a global communications company, I was struck by how highly they spoke of their teams and company culture. They were fully engaged in their work and committed to high quality results. This really surprised me as the majority of them worked virtually with team members thousands of miles away.

However, in another fast-paced global company the employee experience is far from being engaged and connected within the company let alone their teams.

I became curious. Why is it virtual employees in one company thrive while in another they’re stressed, disengaged and looking for the door?

A leader at a global IT firm knows all about success for virtual teams. When asking her if trust is possible for virtual teams, she emphatically answered, “ABSOLUTELY! !”

She cautioned, however, that for companies (large or small) wanting to move from ‘traditional face-to-face’ to a ‘virtual’ work environment, it’s a cultural shift that doesn’t happen overnight. Like any successful change, leadership needs to lead it and provide communication tools necessary to make virtual meetings and collaboration easy and effective.

But it doesn’t end there. The shift actually ignites when the culture of trust transfers from members of small teams to large teams and cross-functional teams they participate within.

These are key leadership behaviors that contribute to building trust in teams:

Essentials for Leaders of Small Teams:

  1. Establish Rapport by scheduling regular (weekly) 1:1’s, assigning work that capitalizes on members’ strengths and providing regular feedback.
  2. Focus intently by listening and actively engaging with your members. Never multi task during 1:1’s or team meetings as it demonstrates you don’t care and that erodes trust.
  3. Set Expectations that your team members show up to meetings prepared, on time, and ready to deliver quality work. Expect participants to activate their computer camera so you can see each other. Making personal connections often is key.
  4. Meet in Person by getting together twice or quarterly a year. It’s the casual as well as formal gatherings that solidify strong relationships.

Essentials for Large Teams:

  1. Build Rapport as above, with the added benefit of the smaller team’s culture and expectations cascading upward as reinforcement.
  2. Span of control for the leader of a large team allows for regular 1:1’s with the next level of leadership to set tone, culture and expectations.
  3. Skip Level 1:1’s several levels below your Direct Reports, scheduled quarterly, establishes relationships at multiple levels. Make sure all team members and employees feel a connection with you and that you care about their success.
  4. Be fully present to focus, actively listen and look to the camera; your team members know when you aren’t and that kills trust.

This is consistent with the findings of Niki Panteli, leader in Information Systems and researcher in trust: it’s the quality and consistency of content and frequency that’s necessary to foster trust in the virtual workplace.

Mutually negotiated and jointly constructed trust relationships are “situated”. As a member of a team, small or large, you too have a responsibility to be part of building the trust:

  1. Collaboratively create team rules – figure out together what’s most important to this team (hint: these may look different from team to team).
  2. Stick to team rules as it aligns with or, despite the culture of the company or leadership behavior.
  3. Hold each other accountable and call out the team when it gets off track.
  4. Embrace each member’s high value and expertise.
  5. Have fun! Work is work, but infusing  time together with a lighthearted personal approach can go a long way to reinforcing trust.

Working from home, I’m keenly aware I’m not my own island. As the future of work continues to be more diffused, so does the need for virtual workers like me, and teams and companies that build foundations of trust. Without it, results can never be guaranteed.

I’d love to hear from you. Tell us about your experience working virtually with a team.

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Comments (4)

  • Avatar

    Jamee Tenzer

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    It is so important as we continue to move forward into a world where were are not working side by side with our colleagues (or even in the same country) that we find ways to connect with and support each other virtually. I particularly agree that it is so important that we not multitask when communicating virtually and maintain eye contact if on a video call. Simple awareness but key to creating strong virtual relationships. Thanks for diving in to this topic, Eve! I learned a lot from this post:)

    Reply

  • Avatar

    S. Brooke Bailey

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    Thanks for posting this and including the small and large distinctions. I sometimes forget how important setting expectations and meeting in person are to fostering strong groups.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Robert Slocumb

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    Great post!
    Thank you so much for sharing this post.Nice work buddy.I agree with your point that communication is essential to leading a virtual team effectively. Managing from a distance requires being clear about expectations, routine checks for comprehension and a quick turnaround time to answer questions and clear up misunderstandings. In the beginning of a virtual transition, this likely requires regular phone calls or video sessions with individual team members. So that we can build trust in virtual teams.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Eve

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      Thanks Robert. Trust always comes down to good and consistent communication.

      Reply

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