People in organizations have known for a long time that trust is an important antecedent of effective teamwork. So it would make sense for this to hold true not only in face to face groups, but also for virtual teams. This week the Leading Virtually team came across a posting by Bridge the Distance offering help in building trust in virtual teams. Reading through this website drove home for me the subtle, but important, difference between what practitioners are saying about trust in virtual teams and what early research is showing. Everyone’s first instinct seems to be that trust is hard to build in virtual teams – in face to face teams it comes largely from the informal, everyday interactions between team members. In F2F groups, trust is buttressed by talking about the weekend’s big game, sharing stories about the kids, or recommending a great restaurant. We know that trust in F2F teams depends largely on liking and familiarity. But informal interactions are far less common (or feasible) among virtual team members.
So how can trust develop in virtual teams? Researchers have found something interesting – it may not be that trust is harder to build in virtual teams. It may be that trust is simply built via different mechanisms in virtual teams. After a few studies on this issue, research suggests that trust in virtual teams depends largely upon reliability. When virtual team members feel they can count on one another to do what they say they will do, trust builds quickly. Surely this is influential among F2F team members as well, but researchers believe it may be the crucial factor in virtual teams. This makes sense when you consider that virtual teams tend to work together for limited amounts of time, while F2F teams are often longer term. From the start, a virtual team has some expectation of a limited length of interaction, so how someone gets the work done is salient to team members.
So what should team leaders do to build trust in virtual teams? Early in the team’s lifecycle, there are several critical things team leaders can do to set the stage for trust. First, leaders have to create opportunities for social interaction, since they don’t happen when team members are dispersed. Provide opportunities for team members to get to know one another – both their work-related skills and their personal interests should be included. Ice breaker exercises can be adapted for a conference call or web meeting so that people can learn more about one another. Leaders should also know that uncertainty is a common barrier to trust in the early stages of a virtual team. Virtual teams have uncertainty about roles within the group, how tasks will be delegated and accomplished, and how to use technology – these are just a few common examples. Since this scenario provides great potential for misunderstanding, virtual team leaders must do all they can to clarify task responsibilities, roles, processes, and other sources of uncertainty.
As the team develops, members themselves can also do quite a bit to build trust. First, team members should do all they can to send signals that they are engaged and listening whenever communication happens. It’s important to be on time for meetings or conference calls, and warn teammates ahead of time of absences. Responding to communications (voicemail messages, emails) promptly ensures that teammates know the message was received and the content is being attended to. Also important, part or all of the leadership role can be rotated among members, depending on the specifics of the team. Each member has a turn to demonstrate that they can be fair and reliable even when asked to play a prominent role. As virtual team members see that each of their colleagues is reliable and capable, trust develops quickly.