When it comes to working together as a team, trust is one of the most critical elements needed for the team to succeed and for each virtual team member to thrive. It's essential to be able to trust the people you work with, to feel that you're all rowing in the same direction and that they're competent and reliable.
Workers who trust each other are more likely to feel comfortable communicating openly, sharing ideas, and working collaboratively. It leads to a sense of psychological safety, which is essential to fostering creativity and the calculated risk-taking vital for innovation to flourish.
Trust is the glue that holds a team together and allows it to function at its best
The problem is that leaders have traditionally built trust within a team through face-to-face activities and in-person collaboration. So when the pandemic suddenly forced whole industries to move to a work-from-home model, they didn't have the know-how to translate all of these experiences to a remote work setting.
Why is it challenging to build trust in a virtual organization?
The main challenge when building trust remotely is that we are simply not trained to do it. Some of the contributing factors to making it different than in a regular office setting are:
Cultural differences. Diverse teams are incredibly enriching due to the variety of perspectives they provide. Still, they can come with cultural differences between team members that are usually explored through in-person interactions and can be challenging to navigate.
Ease of access to each other. In an office setting, a lot is gained through the immediacy of daily contact and chats by the water cooler, where workers share so much of their life, skills, and wisdom. In these interactions, misunderstandings are cleared up, problems are solved, helping hands are extended, and decisions are made.
Lack of shared experiences. Teams that have been working together for some time will have a shared history that unites them, which is more tricky to build without shared lunch breaks, coffee runs, or team-building events. This becomes especially challenging when new team members join the team, who might only know the others through a computer screen.
If we want to build trust in a virtual team, we need to find creative ways to overcome these challenges and the distance that separates workers.
How can you build trust in a virtual team?
Here are a few suggestions to build trust with a virtual team:
1) Clarity is key.
Working remotely brings about a lot of freedom that employees appreciate, but it makes miscommunication much more likely. Set some ground rules for core working hours, required availability through different apps, expected response times, communication flow, etc.
And when you cannot effectively see how many hours employees are working, it becomes vital to set clear and realistic goals for each team member, deadlines, and overall expectations. This allows managers to monitor if things are getting done, even though they can't monitor the how and when.
There is no such thing as too much communication, especially in a virtual team. When you can't see each other in person, it becomes even more critical to make sure the relevant people have the correct information at all times, and that upcoming deadlines or potential delays are communicated to all.
Encouraging project leaders to send out regular updates and scheduling town hall meetings with the company leaders are just some of the ways to ensure that everyone is up to date with the company "news."
3) Give opportunities for feedback.
People need to feel heard, and distance can make this a challenge, especially with less extroverted or more junior team members. Make sure to give everyone the forums where they can contribute their ideas and provide feedback regularly.
Encourage people to speak up by rewarding constructive criticism and candid opinions to ensure that you have the pulse on how people are doing and what can be improved.
4) Keep everyone in the loop of the big picture.
It can be easy to get lost in the details when all you see is your small screen, so make sure everyone knows not only what their task is but also how it contributes to the team's goals. This way, everyone feels like they have a stake in the project's success.
They can understand what other team members are working on and see what each person has on their plate, helping build trust that others are working, even when they might take a little longer to reply or seem disconnected.
5) Encourage face-to-face contact.
Even in a remote team, it's a great idea to plan for in-person meetings or team-building events at least a couple of times a year, if at all possible. But when this is not an option, there are still many ways to encourage more personal, informal interactions in a virtual setting.
Management can schedule short virtual coffee catch-ups with employees, or even between different team members, where the focus is just to share a quick chat and socialize as you would by the coffee machine.
Encouraging employees to keep their camera on during video calls as much as possible allows a greater level of connection from being able to see each other's facial expressions and all the non-verbal communication you miss over the phone.
6) Make people feel seen.
In a remote team, it can be easy for some members to feel invisible or like their work is going unnoticed. Being recognized for a job well done is crucial to employee morale and motivation. So make sure you are taking the time to give praise when it's due, in both private and public forums.
Celebrate successes as a team and ensure everyone knows when someone goes above and beyond. Make an effort to get to know each member of the team and their culture, maybe through informal ice-breakers at the start of weekly or monthly meetings.
This will help employees see the value in the group's diversity, and seeing the humanity at the other end of the line is a critical factor in getting them to build trust.
7) Take advantage of technology.
From the more obvious video conferencing, chatting, and file-sharing tools, to the more sophisticated project management software that acts as a virtual assistant to automate many tasks, we live in the golden age of technology for virtual work.
But to make the best use of all of the technological advances, it's vital to make sure that employees are trained and track that they're actually using the tools.
8) Don't neglect people behind the screen.
Making employees feel valued, taken care of, and appreciated is crucial in building their trust in the organization.
Don't forget to transition training needs, employee evaluations, salary discussions, and career planning to a virtual setting and make them a priority.
The world is changing, and so are the ways we do business. The days of working from a specific office space with everyone in sight will become rarer in the future. But it is still possible to build trust in a virtual team with the proper management and communication strategies.
Consider outsourcing these topics to a company specializing in virtual HR management so they can set up the right processes. If people feel looked after and see that they are more than just a number, they are more likely to feel engaged with the company, fostering better working relations between all.
By creating an environment of trust, you can ensure that you get the best out of each employee, leading to a more productive, collaborative, high-performing team and higher talent retention.
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