Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
March 25, 2021

No Trust, No Team: Six Best Practices for Building Trust on Virtual Teams

Just 10 percent of employees worked remotely before the COVID-19 pandemic, but more than one-third (34 percent) will likely continue to work virtually once the pandemic is over, according to a recent survey of CHROs and talent leaders by my colleagues. Some organizations will lean even more heavily into remote working, with as much as 65 percent of the workforce virtual.

With remote and hybrid work arrangements likely here to stay, more teams are encountering the pitfalls — the tendency toward silos, spotty information-sharing, poor communication, unresolved conflicts and more. Casual conversations are less frequent, and context is often lost through email and other digital channels. Decision-making can be less transparent within a virtual team. All this can take a toll on morale and slow decision-making, bogging things down and affecting team performance.

The antidote to these challenges is trust. Our research shows that top-performing virtual teams report higher levels of trust than less-successful teams. Trust is the foundation and precondition for team success.

How can leaders enhance trust on their teams? Here are six tips:

  • Provide opportunities to build relationships. Trust among team members is developed over time. Creating opportunities for the team to meet face to face, when possible, helps members build relationships and better understand the scope of their work, team composition, timelines, communications processes and decision-making structure. New virtual teams should meet face to face at least once within the first few months.
  • Offer networking opportunities for team members to share their capabilities. Providing opportunities, such as monthly “lunch and learn” sessions, for team members to present on a topic where they have expertise can improve individuals’ credibility and make others more likely to consult them when they need help. These sessions don’t have to be focused on business topics. One colleague of a team that hosted a monthly Zoom session where members were invited to share their “unknown talent” saw his stature skyrocket after he gave a detailed presentation on gemology.
  • Speak the truth. Leaders can model trust and accountability by responding to questions in an honest and complete manner to deliver clarity and transparency. Be balanced by communicating the positive aspects as well as the downsides when making a proposal. Avoid withholding information that may weaken your position but that others would find useful when deciding.
  • Highlight successes. A proven track record of success is one of the best indicators of credibility to other team members. Leaders can encourage team members to share their wins through email, during meetings or social media pages when appropriate. For example, one team created a punchy, well-designed weekly roundup of the extended team’s wins. Rather than just list the success stories, they put them in the context of external market developments, connecting them to the business with engaging lines like, “What you need to know” and “Why it matters.”
  • Encourage and role-model transparency. A sure sign of a lack of trust is the blame game: team members pointing the finger at others for problems or failures and no one taking accountability. Leaders can emphasize the importance of being open and honest by inviting team members to regularly share their challenges as well as their successes, whether during meetings or by posting them in an internal forum and opening them up for discussion. Leading by example gives permission to others to do the same. In addition, make project timelines, agreements and processes fully transparent, when possible. Recognize that employees increasingly view transparency as something to which they’re entitled.
  • Admit when you don’t know something. Few things shut down communication and trust more than a know-it-all. Rather than pretending to know everything, or even if you do, virtual leaders should set an example by being vulnerable, genuinely soliciting the input of others, and always admitting, even advertising, what they don’t know. Leaders should consult other colleagues and experts for information and encourage team members to do the same.

Physical distance makes it harder for team members to find shared experiences that human beings use to help forge personal relationships that help build trust. Leaders can promote trust in their virtual teams, but it takes time and focus. By committing to open, frequent and transparent communication, providing opportunities to build intimacy and personal knowledge, and displaying a willingness to talk about wins and mistakes, leaders can help create a trusting environment and a successful team.