Building Trust for Virtual Teams

When we ask managers to name the toughest challenge associated with leading virtual teams, there’s one answer that always pops to the top of the list: Building trust. Or in some cases, it’s re-building trust.

Building trust is hard for any team, but it’s especially hard for virtual teams, whose members have few opportunities to interact personally. Virtual teams often evolve around projects, with people coming together and drifting away during different phases. When teams span different cultures (whether national, generational or functional), misunderstandings can crop up more frequently with virtual teams, are much harder to detect, and can be awkward to address. Plus, virtual teams rarely allocate special time for relationship-building. So when times are tough, it’s almost impossible to drop everything for the kind of heart-to-heart talks that can repair relationships.

In this article, we offer practical tips for building trust among virtual teams. While many of the same practices can be put to use for teams of any kind, building trust among those you can’t see (and may never have met) is significantly more challenging and critical.

Set the tone as the team leader

The way a team leader interacts with team members on phone calls and in virtual meetings sets the tone for the whole team. This includes tone of voice as well and the warmth with which we say hello. Smiling while talking on the phone can have an impact on others, even if they can’t see you. Try it and observe how your tone and tenor changes. Being rested and well prepared for team meetings will result in a positive, calm demeanor and a good demonstration of active listening—-all of which will have a lasting positive impact on your team.

Use a team kick-off as a time to create social capital, and build from there

Unlike co-located teams that can bond during face-to-face kick-off events, virtual teams also need these “getting-to-know-you” sessions. Dedicating an hour-long virtual meeting for a relaxed conversation about family, interests, professional background and aspirations, for example, can pay big dividends later on. Doing this early on gives members more reasons to keep in touch with colleagues, either 1:1 or as a team. Conversations do not, and should not, be all business, all the time.

Invite people to reveal a piece of themselves at every opportunity

Some people dislike “chatting” on team calls, especially when time is of the essence. Others feel they can’t really trust another without knowing something about the real person behind the voice. Make it easy and fast for people to reveal a little bit of information about themselves. For example, you can ask people to answer a quick (non-invasive) personal question as they log in and/or dial in, such as “What is the title of the last book you’ve read? or “Describe what you like best about winter.” Little by little, people will develop a deeper sense of the whole person, enabling them to forge connections they may otherwise never have been able to make.