Building Team Trust in a Virtual World

After performing the drastic pivot to a fully remote workforce in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many organizations are now weighing the benefits of maintaining a partial work-from-home model of operation. Considering employee safety and the reduced cost of office space, Twitter announced recently that its employees could choose to work remotely going forward.

While many companies have challenged the benefits of supporting employees to work from home, research shows that offering the option of remote work can lead to greater employee engagement, higher productivity and efficiency, lower stress and a boost in morale.

Working together in a virtual setting presents new challenges as well as unique opportunities to exercise creativity while developing trust-based relationships. The question many newly remote teams are asking now is: How do we create and sustain trust without the reliability of in-person interaction? 

When Google went on a quest to discover which conditions produced high-performing, trusted teams, they found that psychological safety was the number one determiner of a team's success. As Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson puts it, "psychological safety is a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves." Team leaders who apply consistent effort to developing psychological safety in their teams will establish a culture based on inclusion. When team members feel safe to be who they are, and speak without fear of punishment, trust is built. Connecting virtually may seem awkward and even unnatural at first, yet it is essential to your team's success. Fortunately, there are tested strategies to promote psychological safety and create a culture of trust.

Encourage Honesty and Vulnerability

Without the interpersonal cues of body language, virtual teams must be transparent in their communications, as collaborating in a virtual world can leave ample room for assumptions. Perhaps you detected a 'tone' in the last email from a colleague, and you assume they're annoyed, or maybe you have seen a slump in their contributions and think they aren't working hard enough. These assumptions influence how we interact with our colleagues and can jeopardize our relationships. A good rule of thumb is "never assume." Rather than disregarding the 'tone,' or hoping for a productivity increase, follow up with clarifying questions or a video chat to ensure nothing is left lingering. When a team leader makes an effort to follow up, they demonstrate the value of transparency and care for each member. 

According to extensive research by Dr. Brene Brown, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation and creativity. One way to be honest and authentically vulnerable with your team is by sharing specific, concise accounts of the challenges you have faced while working from home. Sharing personal stories of difficulties or even failures you have experienced within the context of work helps to develop camaraderie and serves as a reminder that perfection is not the goal. 

Take the Time for Individual Check-in's

We all want to feel like we belong. When we feel a sense of belonging, we are more likely to be creative and take the types of risks that lead to innovation and growth. The virtual world requires a more concerted effort to create meaningful moments of connection with our colleagues and. When a team-lead takes the time to reach out and check in with each individual, they signify the value and importance of every member. Taking time for these one on one check-ins is especially crucial in a remote team because the signs of withdrawal may be less apparent. 

Support Connection Between Team Members

Teams built on trust hold the belief that each member has their best interests in mind. We can only create this depth of reciprocity through shared moments of connection. The current health crisis has forced many organizations to think outside the box for ways to strengthen team bonds online, including here at SIYLI. Our annual team offsite is an experience we all look forward to, moments in nature to disconnect, activities that connect us to our colleagues and an opportunity to deepen relationships. This year, our plans had to shift with the stay-at-home orders in California. SIYLI’s Teacher Development Manager Abri Holden mentioned “we knew this was a vital moment to maintain our group connection, so instead of canceling, we decided to redesign it as a virtual experience that still allowed for vulnerability and deep connection.”

Finding unique ways to create in-depth connection online requires creativity, authenticity, vulnerability, compassionate leadership and humor. There are many ways that you can facilitate non-work focused time with your team. Try hosting a virtual happy hour, pizza party or simply leave the zoom meeting open 15 minutes before meetings for casual conversation. Research suggests that for many, the greatest sense of belonging at work comes from colleagues checking in with each other about how they're doing, "both personally and professionally." Creating intentional moments of non-work focused connection will foster that care for each other.  

Encourage Perspective-Taking

Working in teams is challenging, whether remote or in-person. Even within a small team, there can be various opinions, desires, backgrounds and personal events that influence how each person shows up at work. When conflict arises in a virtual setting, the wounds may fester, driving disconnection and lack of trust. Team leaders should be swift in resolving disputes as they arise, and there are various tools that you can employ. 

Humans are hardwired for empathy, and we develop connection through finding common ground. Help teammates in a disagreement shift their perspective by focusing on their common humanity. One way to exercise this skill could be to start the conversation by saying, "I know you're both navigating the challenges of working from home. I can tell that you are also both passionate about this team/project and your desire to succeed." Acknowledging similarities can diffuse conflict and open the pathway to perspective-taking even during difficult conversations. 

Moving Forward, Virtually

Trust is the foundation of supportive, connected and high-performing teams. When these team's collectively value and listen to each member the result is creativity, innovation and dedicated progress. As Author, Stephen Covey puts it, “Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people.” The process of building trusted teams takes solid effort, virtually or in-person, and that effort is worth the result.