9 Ways To Build Trust In Virtual Teams

Trust is often referred to as the holy grail for teamwork – everyone seems to agree on its importance. And yet only few seem to know how to go about enabling it. Intuitively, it makes a lot of sense. You would possibly get better results in a team environment if you can trust your team members and work together. However, a shift to the virtual work mode has made this even more challenging.

Remote teams are now a common occurrence in any organisation with a global presence. The pandemic is one of the many reasons, of course. But there are a host of other factors, as well. Thus, as a leader, if you want to harness your team’s true potential, irrespective of the geographical locations, an effective work environment is a must.

Trust is one of the key elements for effectively managing any team. And, when the teams are remote, this becomes even more significant. This is because of the increased disadvantages.

It goes without saying that remote teams can help connect people with many unique competencies. But this can also lead to misjudgments in the leadership, an unclear flow of duties and processes, and similar oversights. 

More importantly, there can be miscommunications and misunderstandings due to cultural differences.Your aim must be to build a work culture that’s rooted in trust and a common purpose. This is not only the long-term goal of most companies, but also one of their biggest challenges.

And so, the question that begs itself here, is how to effectively build trust across teams?

An impactful work culture requires fostering long-lasting and productive relationships. Investing in Investing in virtual team-building strategies and activities is one of the possible solutions

But what can leaders individually do to build trust within their virtual teams? 

Here are 9 tips that can help:

They come together to form a handy acronym called

C.U.S.T.O.D.I.A.N`

Competence

Team members are more likely to trust one another if they believe that their teammates are good at their core work. There is no substitute for this simple tenet. If one of your teammates is known to be excellent at her work, that would go a long way in building a relationship of trust with that person. Leaders need to be mindful of this especially during the ‘team formation’ stage in the virtual world.

Understanding

Leaders need to be understanding of the demands on team members due to the new normal brought about by remote working. A Wharton interview with Slack CFO and alumnus Allen Shim captures this well –

“There’s a whole human element to this. We’ve got to talk about, as a company, giving people the flexibility and the space to manage not just work, but their lives. Now all of a sudden, your home is your school and your daycare center. That’s something that has never been done before.”

Removing roadblocks for your team to function effectively can only come with empathy for their situation to build your understanding.

Show Vulnerability

Gone are the days when leaders were expected to be superhuman figures who would not show or share emotions at the workplace. Many leaders in remote teams shy away from asking for help (at times even from their team members), worried that it would reflect poorly on their leadership style. The opposite is true. Vulnerable leaders are more likely to build better trust in remote teams.

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This HBR article makes a powerful case for leaders to demonstrate vulnerability –

Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader—one who engages everyone to reach goals. Jim Whitehurst, CEO of open-source software maker Red Hat, has said, “I found that being very open about the things I did not know actually had the opposite effect than I would have thought. It helped me build credibility.”

Team Attitude

Leaders need to recognise instances where a team member puts the team interest first. And it is especially important in virtual teams to drive home this message relentlessly. Not only does it encourage team members to demonstrate that behaviour, it breaks down barriers to trust. You inherently trust someone who seems to put the interests of the team first.  Virtual team building exercises are also a fun way to drive home this point, if they are done meaningfully and connected back to the context of trust.

Openness

Leaders need to go the extra mile in building an atmosphere of transparency in the team. During these times, it is important to be upfront that you do not have all the answers. If you have recently moved to a virtual environment, it will take some time for the team norms to be set and for the team to get into the rhythm of working together remotely. It is important that course corrections are done and the reasons behind those shared transparently with the team members.

Transparency in performance management is also crucial as per this Gartner article

“Managers often worry about the lack of visibility in the workflows and routines of their remote direct reports. Create a transparent system of performance measurement that quantifies outcomes, not just activities or the amount of time spent on tasks.”

Dependability

Leaders need to be consistent in their behaviour to demonstrate their dependability. In virtual teams, this is especially important for decision making. If leaders are not consistent in the way they make decisions, it becomes difficult for the team to trust the leader and acts as an impediment to overall trust in the team. If they believe that the same rules apply for everyone and leaders would be consistent in the way they approach decisions, it becomes a lot easier for team members to let down their guard and trust the leader and the rest of the team.

Dependability is also built by doing, what you said you would do. In a client conversation, we met with a leader who spoke about the importance of instilling teamwork and trust by being more open with each other. and on the day of the workshop cited a calendar clash to skip the program. Imagine the hit on credibility such an act would have! Staying true to your word would intuitively make sense – but it is difficult to do on a daily basis.

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Interpersonal Relationships

We are often asked whether trust should be given or earned? We are strong believers in the former. One key aspect of this is to focus with intent on building networks of interpersonal relationships within the team. Disclosure exercises to get to know each other better can be facilitated in a virtual environment too.

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This HBR Article talks about a similar concept – Building interpersonal trust –

“When my colleagues and I work with physical teams, we use the art of storytelling over meals, and the same principles can be applied to virtual teams during teleconferences. Although that might feel awkward at first, it’s a powerful way to create empathy. Another recommendation is to invest in an intranet site with social-networking features that enable employees to learn about others. Such measures are especially important in a virtual environment, where people have much fewer opportunities to connect through chance encounters in the hallway or in the company kitchen.”

Acknowledge Efforts

Recognising team members for their contributions has been a key element of leadership and this becomes even more crucial in the remote setup to build trust. There are two facets – the first is calling out important contributions in public forums to larger audiences. This helps the team members gain credibility with other groups they may work with and sets a virtuous cycle going amongst leaders to do the same for their teams. The other aspect is being aware of your team members’ skills/talent.

A Gallup study found some interesting aspects –

“Continually provide feedback related to remote workers’ talents in action, overall performance and opportunities available to help them learn and develop. Demonstrating that you know your people’s talents shows that you know them and the important contributions they offer. You build trust when you prove that you’re fully aware of your remote employees’ talents and are willing to help them use them in their roles.”

Nurture Growth

In remote teams, personal development is often an element that gets sacrificed. While there is a lot of focus on regular checkins, productivity, etc. it cannot mean that the focus on team members’ growth and development can take a back seat. Leaders are still responsible for helping their team members take on developmental goals to ensure that they scale up in their chosen paths. And the focus on this can go a long way in building trust for the leader.

When we talk about developmental goals, leaders have to find out how virtual learning can build trust. You have to come up with virtual team-building activities to make sure confidence remains intact in this disrupting time. You can come up with:

You can engage your team members in any activity that builds up chemistry. You might be spread across time zones, but you can always record the actions virtually.

As a leader during these times, when you are managing virtual teams – do ask yourself are you being a good CUSTODIAN for your team?

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