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How to harness trust in distributed teams

Building trust in distributed teams is a major challenge for most companies that have employees across the world, and rightfully so. Blind trust in someone you’ve never met before is not advisable, especially when you don’t get the chance to share physical space. Emails and on-screen meetings don’t allow us to read subtle body language and micro facial expressions like we do if we meet someone in person.

They don’t call it “winning trust” for nothing. Trust is not a gift but something that needs to be earned.

Foundations of trust

You cannot expect to work successfully with a team that you don’t trust. Although we are neurologically wired to trust people depending on the amount of ocytocine in the brain, trust is not that simple in a virtual context. There are plenty of other factors that contribute to assessing a persons’ trustworthiness in a remote business setting.

Researchers have dedicated a tremendous amount of effort to study trust. Numerous conclusions point out the impact of trust on team performance, productivity, and employee happiness. People who work remotely are 24 percent happier than traditional office workers. At the same time, companies that provide flexible work options have 25 percent lower turnover rates.

In distributed team culture, making a good first impression regarding trustworthiness matters. There is no doubt that individuals and companies both invest a lot of of resources in how they present themselves.

Yet, working globally has its own set of setbacks. Common virtual team challenges can indeed ruin a stellar project. For example, cultural differences and “us vs. them” mentality can negatively affect trust in distributed teams. However, a fully distributed team can also enable working with talented individuals and cast a wide net on the global market. In fact, working within a geographically dispersed team is becoming the norm and not the exception for successful companies, as almost half of the workforce will soon be working in a remote or hybrid company. Needless to say, managers need to adapt to the changing workplace and establish an effective system for building trust in virtual teams.

3 trust enablers

To strengthen trust in a distributed team, you need to go beyond the conventional wisdom that requires interpersonal proximity towards building a system for developing trust that works well even when you are thousands of miles away from your team members.

Such a system requires to actively work on relationship management. It also requires implementing both technical and organizational types of solutions in order to address root technology causes and problems arising from people.

What are some of the best ways to build trust in virtual teams? Let us start by focusing on three key actions that will help you do just that:

  • Create a well-rounded recruitment process to pick suitable candidates
  • Set a clear work structure with measurable and well-defined outcomes and deliverables
  • Manage interpersonal relationships

Many great managers get stuck in this initial phase of forming a distributed team. It’s a daunting task if you have no clue how to do it and if you’ve only worked in a conventional setting. Chances are, however, that you already have at least some experience with cross-national work and just need to know how to improve it. Here is how to run the process with aplomb.

Recruit right

The inception phase is important, as it will form the base of the team and remove many of the virtual team challenges that can come across going forward. Regardless of the practical means you are going to use to accomplish the task – using an online hiring platform, getting a recommendation, or hiring a recruiter – candidates for your team must meet at least three criteria, which are essential trust components:

  • Ability or competence 
  • Integrity or honesty
  • Benevolence

Ability is having the skills and the knowledge to perform a job task. Integrity is delivering what was promised. Benevolence is completing the work and persistently acting in good faith, as well as having the businesses’ best interest at heart.

As you can see, a lot of the qualities come down to personality traits. Therefore, carefully craft job descriptions, do tests and run interviews that will check these three trust dimensions before you hire someone.

As you can see, a lot of the qualities come down to personality traits. Therefore, carefully craft job descriptions, do tests and run interviews that will check these three trust dimensions before you hire someone.

Role – check, team – check, and organization – check, and you will eliminate poor accountability for one’s own actions, differences in work ethic, and weak commitment. A sense of ownership is an important determinant for future team success, as distributed team members must be able to be self-starters and work independently. It also gets micro-management out of the way.

Clear objectives

To get the job delivered as you want it, you need to:

  • Be clear about what you want, and
  • Communicate that in a clear manner.

Unless you clarify deliverables, you will sail through some muddy waters. This is easier said than done. You sometimes don’t know what you want, as the expert you want to hire needs to tell you exactly that. Assuming that you’ve handled the recruitment phase well, setting up the main deliverable and the related partial goals and milestones to get there will not be so complex. In fact, an expert can help you clarify them.

Nonetheless, it is your job to organize and communicate a clear framework in which many experts will collaborate effectively, and lead the transition towards cohesion. The manager’s task is to remove incompatible communication preferences, second-guessing, and misunderstandings by providing communication and project management tools. Research indicates that the role of the manager is crucial in the adaption of a distributed team to new technologies and communications. Therefore, always check, ask and answer questions, and clear misunderstandings as soon as they happen using the available tools.

Ask any project manager, and they won’t stress enough the importance of timely clear communication in distributed project teams.

Make it personal

Relationships are developed over time, so you must actively play a role in relationship management. If you’ve chosen the right people and communicated clearly, you have set the relationship on a solid base.

Additionally, consider and nurture diversity to be able to fully build trust in your virtual team. Diversity is about personal differences. It can be something as simple as checking for national holidays in a remote location before setting a huge project deadline, as well as learning about what makes people tick across the globe. Since we are not all culturally wired the same way, a little care goes a long way as far as minor differences are in question.  Again, this will be a breeze if you’ve chosen the people well.

All in all, we all need to contribute into making an effort to build trust within the team, doesn’t matter you are the manager or the team member, because one-sided approach just won’t work. Be sure you have some clear pointers about what trust means in the context of your virtual work and for your team, and actively lead your team in a trusted manner.

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