Out of Office

Build Trust with Virtual Team Members

In an office, people build trust through personal interactions. They work in the same building, park in the same car park, and eat at the same canteen or local cafés. They bring in birthday cakes, send their children to the same schools, and walk their dogs in the same park. They take the same holidays, support the same sporting teams, and watch the same TV shows. Even a culturally diverse team has many things in common.

This isn’t as easy with virtual team members because they just aren’t in the same place. You might try to re-create the same opportunities – for example, insisting they come in to the office from time to time – but that’s only a stop-gap solution, isn’t always possible, and can even cause resentment.

Instead, recognise that telecommuters build trust through work-related cues. They look for reliability, consistency, integrity (keeping promises), and responsiveness as indicators of trust. This is good news for you, because these factors also directly affect productivity and performance. Get these things right to build trust, and you boost productivity at the same time.

On a practical level, here are some standards you can set for your team’s everyday operations:

  • Set clear deadlines, and commit to meeting them.
  • Clarify expectations about how people respond to requests (for example, e-mail responses within one working day).
  • Choose appropriate communication channels based on these expectations (for example, using the phone, not e-mail, for urgent requests).
  • Set deadlines and milestones for a reason, and explain the reasons (“I need that delivered by 1.30 tomorrow, so I can present it to the board at 2pm”).

Don’t just dictate these as arbitrary rules; explain why they are important and how they affect the team’s performance. For example, somebody who delivers a report one hour late might see it as a minor problem, but it could affect a team member in another country and time zone, who can’t complete a presentation slide deck in time for an important meeting the next day.

Because these issues are so important to building trust, monitor them closely and act quickly if you see problems.

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