With our workdays now defined and driven by multiple online calls each day, building trust virtually is fundamental to delivering business outcomes.
Research conducted a few years ago, prior to COVID-19, found that virtual teams tend to be more productive and less costly to organizations. With the onset of COVID-19 and even with the gradual reopening of the economy, working remotely will remain the norm for quite some time, and teams will need to work remotely for the foreseeable future. The underpinning of remote work is trust, but how can you build trust in a virtual workplace?
1. Get to (Really) Know Your Team Members
The first step to building trust in a virtual environment is to get to know your team members. One way to do so is to spend the first few minutes of your one-on-one meetings to ask about the other person’s life: Ask about their family members’ health and well-being, about a hobby, and even about their pet. Asking these questions reminds everyone that our humanity comes first.
Another way to get to know each other is to meet for 15 minutes or so with members of the organization whom you don’t know well to chat about common or new interests, set up a virtual mentoring program, or enable team members to teach each other. Managers in many organizations have set up virtual office hours or happy hours with their teams. These meetings are not mandatory and can create a personal and informal virtual setting that helps team members connect with each other.
2. Set and Share Common Goals
Goals are important to building trust, because they define a common set of values for the team to draw from and a common destination for the team to drive toward. Working from home has blended our personal, professional and family lives together under one roof, making it difficult to compartmentalize and prioritize. In a virtual setting, establishing goals is even more critical, because they define a common destination for virtual team members who feel geographically disconnected while working from home.
Set goals that are clear, attainable, timely and understood by your whole team. The importance of timing is magnified in a virtual environment, so be clear when discussing it. Goals can be immediate (e.g., “What is the goal of today’s meeting?”), short-term (e.g., “What is our two-week sprint goal? What are our quarterly goals?”) and long-term (e.g., annual, two- or three-year, or five-year goals).
Setting and sharing goals, especially immediate and short-term goals, can help strengthen trust by providing a pool of shared values and an opportunity for each team member to contribute.
3. Communicate With Transparency and Consistency
The virtual workplace strips away body language cues and adds stressors like switching from one virtual meeting to another, focusing on a child who needs attention or tending to a barking dog. When we communicate virtually, we can build trust by being transparent and being consistent by showing up, sticking to a schedule and being prepared.
In any setting, being transparent means saying what you mean, meaning what you say and doing what you promise in any setting. In a virtual setting, it can be tricky because of the lack of physical presence and body language clues, so pay special attention to whether your actions align with your words and whether you deliver what you promised to your team. If you cannot deliver on time or need help doing so, let your manager and your team know early, so they can help you.
Being consistent, virtually or otherwise, includes several elements, including showing up, sticking to a schedule and being prepared. In a virtual setting, showing up means defining when you will be online and when you will be offline. When you are online, you also need to be on time.
Sticking to a schedule means posting your work schedule on your profile so it is visible to everyone in the organization. Of course, given that our professional, personal and family lives have blended, your schedule may change. When it does, inform your team so that they know when to expect you to be online. Finally, being prepared means taking the time to do your pre-reading or research and completing tasks as needed prior to meetings.
Taking these steps will help you build trust with your team members, because you will demonstrate with both your words and your actions that you are dependable, responsible and trustworthy.
4. Focus on Outcomes
While setting and communicating your online and offline schedule is critical, ultimately, it’s important to focus not only on “time in seat” but on delivering outcomes. Working from home has distorted whatever work-life balance we had created prior to COVID-19. Now, with children and other family members at home, some of your team members may be spending time during the workday tending to children, including teaching, playing with or cooking meals for them.
These activities take away from the continuous 9-to-5 workday, distract your team members, and stress them and the rest of the team. The key is to focus on outcomes: whether you and your team members deliver what you promised, when you promised it, instead of how much time you spent on your computers. This new reality might mean that you or your team members work earlier in the morning or later at night, when it is quieter at home.
These four approaches can help you build and strengthen trust in your virtual workplace, make you a better team member, and help you progress in your job. Before applying them as an individual, it may be useful to offer them as suggestions to your manager for discussion with your team. Doing so will enable you and your team members to explore these and other ideas and to adopt and adapt them to your team’s needs and context.