Building trust in virtual teams

Building trust in virtual teams

Workers who prize relationships, tend not to thrive as much when working virtually. Istock images

Tomorrow is a crucial client presentation. A relatively new recruit is creating your slides. He has promised to email them by 3 pm so you can edit them. It’s noon now.

Should you remind him of the approaching deadline? 

If both of you are working on-site, you probably have an idea on whether he works assiduously or tends to chat with teammates. Worst case, you can just pop over to his cubicle to decide if a reminder is necessary. But when either or both of you are working remotely, how do you figure out what to do? 

In her book, Remote Work Revolution, Harvard Business School Professor, Tsedal Neeley notes that trust entails having confidence in the “words, actions, and decisions of another.”

In traditional office settings, trust evolves over a period of time as people interact over multiple occasions. How does trust develop and operate remotely? Though ‘trust’ is used as an umbrella term, Neeley parses it into various subtypes and explains how they relate to virtual teamwork.

Passable trust is the minimum amount of trust that people need to share in order to work together, either online or offline.

Swift trust, on the other hand, involves high-levels of trust that are gained rapidly. For example, flight crews often work synergistically under intense pressure without a history of shared trust. As trust is dynamic and prone to change with time, conceiving of a trusting curve is useful while working with colleagues remotely.

If you plot a trusting curve for regular, in-person teams with trust on the y-axis and time on the x-axis, you will find that the curve gradually increases over time. But as remote teams cannot follow this natural process of gaining trust, we need to think of trust differently for online work. 

As trust cannot be imposed, how do remote teams work together? Neeley differentiates cognitive trust from emotional trust. The former refers to thinking that your colleagues are “reliable and dependable,” whereas the latter depends on the “care and concern” coworkers have for each other.

Cognitive vs emotional trust 

Passable trust requires only the cognitive kind. Swift trust, on the other hand, is conditional on having both cognitive and emotional trust.

While remote teams may build cognitive trust quite rapidly, emotional trust takes longer to establish. However, virtual teams may function fairly well on high levels of cognitive trust that is gained by “evidence of competence.” These could include earlier work samples, elite degrees earned by a person or the manner in which someone speaks during virtual meetings. 

Neeley argues that remote work is easier on those who value ‘individualism’ and are “task-oriented.” In contrast, workers who prize relationships, tend not to thrive as much when working virtually. However, leaders may take the following steps to promote trust in remote teams.

Unlike in-person offices, wherein we get to know the work habits and personality quirks of our colleagues, remote work doesn’t offer a window into people’s routines and idiosyncratic rituals. So, Neeley advocates that teams build “direct knowledge” of each other’s work patterns and lives.

Informal interactions

Instead of ending video calls when business matters have been discussed, people can spend around ten minutes in casual banter. Questions like “What do you do for lunch?” or “Is it difficult to work with kids around the house?” can provide contextual details about remote workers, who can then understand each other better.

A few virtual interactions can be completely informal without any work demands where colleagues just chat about their hobbies, routines, pets etc. Team leaders may also promote bonding by organising virtual birthday celebrations or significant work anniversaries.

Neeley also recommends that teams cultivate “reflected knowledge” which involves seeing yourself through the perspective of remote team members, including those from distant cultures. She cites an example of how cultural misperceptions can erode trust.

A team of engineers in India and Germany were collaborating on a task. Funnily, both the Indians and the Germans felt the other group was lazy. Apparently, German work culture required workers to put in long hours at a stretch and were expected to answer emails only during scheduled but infrequent email breaks. As a result, the Indians felt that the Germans took too long to reply to their messages. 

On the other hand, the German grouse was that the Indians were not working hard enough because they were always taking tea breaks.

What the Germans didn’t realise was that the tearoom was a place to share ideas, brainstorm and solve problems. If the two teams were aware of the work culture in each country, they may have been less judgmental and more trusting of each other. Thus, working together not only involves shared knowledge of the work to be completed but also of the working habits and lives of the workers themselves. 

(The writer is an author and blogger)