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How to Build Trust in Virtual Teams

Posted by Darleen DeRosa February 5, 2019

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Virtual teams are critically important for today’s organizations. Innovative technology has made it possible for companies to leverage a geographically dispersed workforce and assemble resourceful teams capable of tackling their most pressing issues.  

OnPoint Consulting’s global study on virtual collaboration has found that top performing virtual teams reported higher levels of trust than teams that were less successful. This research confirmed what we’ve learned from many years of experience with virtual teams: trust is an essential ingredient for their success.

Despite the importance of trust in virtual collaboration, building trust can be quite difficult. Although many organizations understand that trust is a necessary prerequisite of working together effectively, they don’t appreciate how working remotely makes it more difficult to build strong relationships. Team members working from a distance rarely see one another in person, and in many cases, they’ve never even met in person. Physical distance makes it harder to establish the personal relationships that make it easier to build trust.

Colocated teams typically rely on interpersonal trust, which is based on personal relationships. People see each other regularly and have an ongoing series of interactions that allow them to get to know their coworkers. Virtual teams must rely heavily on task-based trust, which is the belief that team members will do their job. Accountability, then, is at the center of the relationship. Of course, task-based trust doesn’t happen on its own, either. It has to be developed and that occurs when virtual team members are responsive, follow through on commitments, and take responsibility for results.

Warning Signs of Low Trust

When trust is low in a virtual team, they will struggle to be successful. There are a few warning signs of low trust that every team member (and especially virtual leaders) should watch out for:

  • Team members not referring to themselves as “we,” focusing instead on their personal needs and agendas.

  • Silos developing among sub-groups, leading to communication breakdowns.

  • Lack of information sharing, which leaves team members in the dark.

  • Micromanagement by the virtual leader or other team members, suggesting that they don’t trust others to follow through on commitments.

  • Conflicts not being resolved, causing lingering resentment or even hostility.

  • Team members being openly negative, undermining morale.

  • Team members not regarding the commitments of others as credible, making collaboration difficult, if not impossible.

  • Low levels of productivity or missed deadlines, sabotaging team success.

Strategies for Building Trust

So, what can virtual leaders do to build trust? Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that have been proven to improve trust among team members. The following guidelines are a good foundation for success:

  • Leaders should encourage team members to communicate openly and honestly, model positive behaviors, implement a communication plan for team interactions, and ensure they are accessible and responsive.

  • Teams should leverage online tools such as video conferencing (like Zoom Rooms or Skype), virtual communication software (such as Slack or Microsoft Teams), and social media profiles (like Linkedin or Instagram) so that members can become acquainted and learn about each other’s backgrounds and experiences.

  • Meeting face-to-face at least once early on in the team’s formation to help team members build relationships and establish credibility. If a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible, a series of virtual meetings designed to introduce everyone could be substituted.

  • Teams should use tools like video and instant messaging and encourage spontaneous and informal interaction among members, allowing them to collaborate freely and get to know each other organically.

  • Team members need to be empowered to make and act on decisions, especially because they won’t always be able to wait for approval on all tasks.

  • Ensure people have the skills to productively manage conflicts.

  • Team members should be partnered up with people in other locations to encourage them to develop working relationships. These teams can then be switched up over time.

As virtual teamwork becomes more prevalent, organizations need to take a close look at how they can best ensure the success of these teams. To maximize their return on investment, organizations should ensure that high levels of trust are in place and continually assess the performance of their virtual teams over time.

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Topics: Work Smarter Virtually

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