Building Trust in Your Virtual Team

January 21, 2016

iStock_Leadership Virtual Meeting_Large

What comes to mind if you are asked about improving a virtual team’s performance? Getting the technology right? Putting in place the best processes or creating the right metrics? What about the human side? Virtual team managers can all too often neglect the relationship-building element of creating a successful team. When team members don’t see each other every day, or sometimes never, it can be much harder to build strong relationships – and without those relationships creating trust becomes more of a challenge. Teams that trust each other demonstrate more transparent knowledge sharing, enhanced creativity, a stronger sense of commitment – and ultimately, greater productivity. Trust may develop naturally among co-located teams but if you are managing a virtual team you might need to focus more time and more attention on creating trust. What can you do to replicate the informal interactions of face-to-face working when you are managing a virtual team?

Trust in you

If you are leading a virtual team your team members need to know that they can first of all trust you. A lack of trust will lead to low engagement and commitment to you and the team objectives.

  • Be available: you can’t be available 24/7 but you can make sure your team knows when and how best they can contact you. Be mindful of different time zones and working schedules and make sure that everyone has access to you at a time that is convenient to them.
  • Make time for one-to-one time: it doesn’t have to be weekly but a regular catch-up will help virtual workers to stay on track and give them the chance to share any concerns or challenges they may be experiencing. Use this one-to-one time to get to know what makes each individual tick. How do they prefer to be managed? What do they find most challenging about virtual working? When do they do their best work?
  • Encourage shared leadership to show that trust is a two way process. If you show that you trust your team they are more likely to trust you. Try rotating the lead on team meetings, creating mentoring roles for more experienced team members or giving responsibility for special projects to other team members.

Trust in each other

Often we find it easier to trust people who are ‘like us’; we can identify more readily with those who share the same background, values and ways of working. It’s also much easier to build trust with people we see every day. So how do you ensure that trust develops not only between you and the team but between your team members across the country, continent or globe?

  • Bring the team together face-to-face early on if you can – and use this time wisely to get to know each other on a personal as well as professional level. Give team members the opportunity to share their backgrounds, their working preferences and priorities. Team profiling tools or icebreaking exercises can be a useful way to understand the different styles within the team and even if face-to-face time is impossible these can provide structure for an online teambuilding session.
  • Recreate the watercooler: consider how you can provide opportunities for informal engagement as well as task-focused interactions; consider how you can replicate those ‘water cooler’ moments that happen so naturally for co-located teams. Use a social media or collaboration channel that enables team members to share personal information or kick off virtual meetings with an icebreaker or opportunity for each individual to update the team on what’s going on for them on a more personal level.
  • Agree to a team charter as a group: include practical considerations such as which communication channels you’ll use, what your team meetings will look like, agreed response times and shared terminology. But also include your team mission and values and make sure that all team members have agreed and signed up to these.

Research has shown that virtual teams that invest time and energy in building relationships may take a little longer at the start to produce results but long-term their productivity far surpasses teams that haven’t invested in developing relationships.

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