Building Team Trust From a Distance


Social and productivity tools for when work environments go virtual

Side view of miniature toys standing on wooden block - social distancing, teamwork concept.

There was a story published a few years ago about Google’s quest to build the perfect team. Essentially, Google discovered that rather than putting the smartest people together or making sure the team was equipped with the right knowledge, one of the best predictors of team effectiveness was the extent to which people trusted one another enough to feel psychologically safe. Was there a space where people felt accepted for who they were? Could they speak up and share their thoughts?

At its core, psychological safety demands that people trust one another. This is even more important in a virtual environment because trust emerges from a shared identity and a shared context. Normally, teams have non-verbal cues—little smiles or moments of care when we drop by a colleague’s office or bring her a coffee. These are ways we build trust. But they erode quickly with distance. A major reason why virtual teams struggle is because of the physical, social and psychological distance of its members. 

The lack of trust can impact productivity. When we don’t trust that other people are benevolent, we begin to distrust their integrity. When we don’t trust they care for us or the team, it affects the extent to which we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for following through with a task.

The challenges are even greater during this pandemic. No one is at their best right now. We’ve all been distracted. People are on different parenting or work schedules. This can make team members wonder about their co-workers: Why isn’t this person available? Are they even paying attention? Or are they slacking off?

Many people are unable to do the quality work they did before. Their patience is starting to wear thin and conflicts are emerging.

This is exactly when we need to be more compassionate, to not presume the worst, even though the social isolation may be getting to us.

What can you do as a team leader to create a virtual environment that builds trust? 

Social tools for building trust

First, find ways to maintain social bonds. Before the shutdowns, for example, meetings would often start with five to 10 minutes of chit-chat as everyone settled in the room together. Structure this into your virtual team meetings to help people stay socially connected. It can be scheduled time at the start of the meeting or a discrete event, such as a coffeehouse chat.

Research has shown that virtual teams tend to focus far too much on tasks and not enough on building a shared spirit. Humour is one way to ensure the team is not exclusively focused on work. At the start of online meetings, allow team members to share silly news and other such items. You can also tell stories or poke fun at yourself as a leader. (It will make you seem accessible and put people at ease, thus building psychological safety.)

One of the keys to trust is that people are able to read visual cues. If possible, have it be mandatory in your team meetings for people to switch on their video. Don’t allow people to hide and do other things. Your meetings should run as if team members were sitting around a boardroom table together. This allows people to feel the psychological presence of another person, which helps to build a shared identity.

Personal life check-ins can be done in a team meeting, but you as a leader should also do this one-on-one with your colleagues: “How's it going?” “How are your kids adapting?” “Are you able to get out for that run that I know you love to do?” It goes a long way to show compassion and to acknowledge that you see each one of them as a whole person and not merely as someone from whom you can get a few hours of work. 

And when you do check in with a colleague, presume positive intent. Don’t presume a lack of productivity. When you hear a voice in your head that says, “I wonder if she’s working?” or “I bet he’s doing something with his kids instead of getting the work done”, check it.

Instead, remind yourself that everyone is having a tough time right now, that employees can’t all work the same hours as you, but that does not mean they’re not getting work done.

Frequent updates

When you work in virtual teams, you need increased clarity on expectations and timelines. These must be documented and placed where people can be reminded of what’s expected of them. Beyond tasks and deadlines, these reports should include frequent feedback and progress updates.

Where pre-pandemic weekly meetings at an office would suffice, in today’s circumstances you require more regular contact using instant messaging, email or virtual meetings. 

It does not have to be synchronous contact. It can be a quick message before you retire in the evening: “I'd love to get an update. How are things going? Is there anything you need from me at this point?” Your team members may not get the message until the next morning, but they can give you the update when feasible. You can both be working at different times and still be effective.

One more thing: Schedule mandatory pre-meeting preparations so that people no longer go into a team meeting expecting to get the work done at that time. The norm should be that people prepare before the meetings. That way, your virtual meetings will be productive and allow everyone to get airtime.

Jana Raver is an associate professor and the E. Marie Shantz Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business.