Trust, risk and remote teams


One of the major tenets of this blog is that leading and working in remote teams isn’t intrinsically more difficult than working together, but it is different. So we have to acknowledge and address those differences if we’re going to be successful. If you were listing the differences, the ability to build trusting work relationships would probably be at the top.

Suzanne Edinger is a researcher and assistant professor of Organisational Behavior at Nottingham University Business School. She has a particular focus on building social capital in teams and companies. We conducted an interview that produced so much good material it will take two posts to cover it all.

In Part 1, we look at the effects of working in isolation from your teammates and what practical steps a leader can and should take to address them. She addresses a concept that had never occurred to me: the role risk plays in building or damaging team trust.

What are the long-term effects of working in isolation from each other?

Two of the most important processes in teamwork are communication and trust. Research has demonstrated that if team members don’t trust one another and don’t have effective paths of communication, their teams will be ineffective. These competencies are more difficult to develop in virtual situations, especially if team members are isolated from one another either geographically or technologically.

How does this impact trust?

Trust develops over time and is based on repeated interactions with another individual. As we see how a person responds in different situations, we assess their relative level of trustworthiness. This is a highly individualized process and can be culturally specific, which means building trust becomes more difficult as team diversity increases.

Two conditions are necessary for building trust: risk and interdependence. Without some level of risk, there is no need for trust. However, too much risk can be detrimental. For example, if the project the virtual team is assigned is make-or-break for most of the members on the team, the personal risk for each member is too high and building trust will be very difficult. Some level of interdependence of work is also necessary for trust building. Interdependence can be based on the task, the outcomes of the project, and/or the resources associated with the project.

Which leads us to communication. How does risk impact communication in a remote environment?

Communication is also vitally important in virtual teams, and more difficult to maintain when members are isolated from one another. Without good communication, conflicts and resentment build. Face-to-face team members often see one another on a daily basis, even when their teams are not meeting.

This proximity leads to ‘water-cooler’ conversations related to the project and the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another outside the context of a formal meeting. Virtual team members need to be encouraged to do the same things. Pick up the phone and call another team member to discuss a potential idea.

Virtual teams are often less efficient than their face-to-face counterparts because team members have gone in different directions between meetings and time has been invested in work that won’t be used by the team. Additionally, don’t underestimate the importance of non-verbal communication. In some cultures, this is much more important than the words a person says. Assessing non-verbal cues can be very challenging in virtual teams.

So what tools or skills should managers of traditional teams develop or learn in order to create trust and good communication in remote teams?

Lead by example. We know that one way individuals learn to behave at work is by copying the beaviours of their manager and other senior staff members. Demonstrate to your team that sharing information and trusting one another are “the way things are done here”. Provide them with strong examples to emulate

Encourage open communication. Ensure that your team meets regularly enough to maintain open lines of communication. Consider asking them to complete team contracts. These set out the norms expected of all team members, including honest and meaningful communication. Be clear that withholding information is not acceptable behavior.

Limit multitasking in meetings. Because everyone isn’t gathered together, and we cant’ see each other, we often have the tendency to work on to-do lists rather than devote full attention to the meeting and our teammates. This has a detrimental effect on trust. Make it clear that working off-task won’t be tolerated.

Spend time on team process and relationships. Make sure all team members know what is expected of them, and why they’re involved. This helps overcome the tendency to multitask and keep people engaged.

Increase appreciation. Increase the amount of recognition you give team members. Express empathy by using active listening without judgement and accept different opinions openly.

Don’t assume silence means agreement. Silence can have a number of causes; misunderstanding, lack of a safe environment, fear of risk taking, and differences in power. It might also mean they agree, but if you don’t ask, you won’t know.

Suzanne Edinger believes that good relationships don’t happen organically in a remote environment: in the next interview, we’ll look at how to mindfully build up social capital in our remote teams.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.