Virtual Teams

Building trust in a virtual and hybrid world

Trust is a big thing in managing people and in society. High levels of trust correlate with retention, innovation, collaboration, and performance at work. At a macro level, trust in society correlates with everything good from health outcomes to infant mortality to economic performance to longevity.

But the environment for trust has changed. We evolved to build trust face-to-face. Today we have less, or maybe no time physically together with our colleagues. When we work together virtually there are more opportunities for misunderstanding and if there is a trust problem it’s extremely difficult to repair through video and e-mail.

Building, maintaining, and repairing trust virtually is a topic we’ve been working on in our remote in virtual teams training for over 30 years.

As we move into an environment where remote and hybrid working becomes more mainstream, we can no longer assume that trust is a free by-product of proximity. When we all work together in the same office, we had a lot of time to get to know each other over coffee, lunch and social activities in the evening.

There were also very visible consequences if people didn’t behave in a trustworthy way, as it became visible much more quickly and they would take a reputational hit.

When we are building trust with a new colleague, we tend to look for evidence of both capability (can they and do they do what they say they’re going to do to an acceptable standard) and character (the style in which they do it).

  • It is relatively easy to interpret and signal trust around capability in a remote environment – if people deliver good quality work on time we can see this and our confidence grows.
  • But character is much more difficult to interpret and evaluate remotely. How do I know the intent behind that e-mail, how can I judge whether people are being mutual and supportive?

As leaders of remote and virtual teams and as supportive colleagues we need to invest more time in making trusting and trusted behaviours explicit.

When we are working virtually, we need to be more open about intent and to try harder to signal the behaviours behind our actions.

If we do have the opportunity to get face-to-face, we should build in more opportunities for people to interact and get to know each other at a personal and a character level.

If we don’t, we may experience a slow decline in social capital in our teams which eventually will lead to a trust breach, which is then very difficult to repair remotely.

In a hybrid world we will also find that trust bonds form more quickly and more strongly with people who are able to get face-to-face for part of the time. This will lead to different levels of engagement and involvement and reinforce proximity bias, unless we change the way we built trust.

How do you build, maintain and repair trust in a virtual and hybrid world?

This is one small example of where we need to upgrade all of our leadership and collaboration skills for a world where some people are present and others are remote. If  you need to upgrade your training curriculum for a remote, hybrid and matrix world please get in touch

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