How to Build Trust in Virtual Teams [Book Review & Tips]
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Trust matters because it helps build a resilient project team.
Trust helps get things done. Trusted team members not only do only what is asked, but what the project needs them to do, because they know that the project manager will trust their decisions and actions.
Trust is a shortcut to better working relationships and better project outcomes.
That’s the premise behind Thomas P. Wise’s book, Trust in Virtual Teams. It’s a (pretty academic) guide to explaining trust and building trust in virtual teams. But first, you have to understand what a virtual team is.
A new definition of virtuality
Wise says that virtual teams are traditionally defined by distance. However, he suggests that a definition based on geography is an old-fashioned way of explaining virtuality in a team environment.
You probably have worked in an office where project team members sit practically next to each other emailing each other, and that use of electronic communication means they could be based thousands of miles apart – their working environment and style makes them part of a virtual team, regardless of where they actually sit.
For me, this was the big revelation from the book. Up until now I had always thought of virtual teams as being spread across multiple locations, but the modern way if working really means that most of us are part of virtual teams, even if we are office-based.
Read next: Tips for Effective Virtual Meetings
In the past trust was built through sharing small confidences and water cooler chat. It comes from knowing that your colleague will make your cup of tea just how you like it.
But on virtual teams you don’t have the interaction that you have in colocated teams. So how do you build trust when you never get to meet or talk to your colleagues and there are days of silence between email exchanges?
“Team members learn to trust one another as they come together to work,” says Wise. He talks about them having a connectedness through a common vision that helps them work effectively.
However, when you are leading virtual teams you may find that trust is initially based on stereotypes.
Wise warns that not conforming to stereotypes can actually undermine the development of trust. I’m not sure if I agree with this as a long term strategy for getting your team to trust you, but it would be interesting to investigate this further.
Other things that you can do more easily to build trust, he says, include:
- acting predictably
- working from facts (not opinion).
In other words, if you say your project report will come out every Friday at 3pm, make sure it does. And make sure that it reports facts, not opinion.
Fun activities like a virtual scavenger hunt for teams are also good to build relationships.
Step-by-step instruction guide and training videos on two different ways to engage and have fun with your team! Learn how to create an interactive team map AND how to set up an online countdown calendar.
Dealing with problems
“A problem can occur, however, when we establish a set of rules on how work gets done, and then have a tendency to bend and stretch, and adjust the rules based on unpublished pecking orders and hierarchies,” Wise writes.
This is what happens when you don’t act predictably and from the basis of facts. An example of this happening in a project environment would be when it’s OK not to do document version control because it doesn’t add anything and helps hit the overall project deadlines.
In order to get round this, Wise says: “We must align our goals, our rules, and our actions in order to establish an environment that can build and nourish institutional based trust.”
He recommends doing this through Quality Assurance on projects (which is discussed in detail) and transparent project reporting.
Techniques to improve success in virtual teams
He also says that it is possible to improve success in virtual teams by using techniques like:
- human resource policy
- social events
- information sharing through collaboration tools
- leadership support.
Team members tend to avoid difficult situations in the early days of working on a new team, so you might think everything is working fine until you get a bit further into the project.
The difficult situations are pushed aside and dealt with later, when trust has been built up. “Establishing both a trust relationship and an effective virtual work environment, based on that trust, is critical to reducing project risk.”
Listen to this: Elizabeth and Joe Pusz talked about how to manage virtual teams in this podcast.
My view of the book
The book includes stories from his own experience but no external case studies. I thought it jumped around a bit, which made following the flow difficult. I also thought it ended abruptly, as if he had forgotten to write the conclusion.
If poor trust really does increase project risk, and I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t, then it will help you to review the levels of trust in your project team to see where things could be improved.
It doesn’t take a book to do that, but if you want to go deeper into the theories of trust and how these can be applied in the workplace, then this book will help.
Buy Trust in Virtual Teams on Amazon.
After reading an article (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-03-12/because-employees-cant-be-trusted) on Bloomberg’s Businessweek Management blog regarding the lack of trust in today’s work environment, learning about this book was refreshing. Trust certainly is crucial in any work environment, whether virtual or face-to-face. As referenced, the way trust is formed certainly has changed, but this book seems to allude to the fact that nothing can replace face-time to build trust amongst co-workers. It certainly is true that we are all on virtual teams in today’s world, even if we are physically in the same office. I think that even in virtual teams, managers should put effort towards creating opportunities for face-to-face interactions amongst the team members. Whether this be a chat around the water cooler, a physical meeting once a month, or simply a regular video conference session, I believe this effort will go a long ways towards allowing co-workers to get to know each other and build trust in their team. The book seems to offer other ways as well, such as being predictable, basing your deliverables on facts, and conforming to stereotypes. I agree with the first two, however I, like you, don’t agree that ‘conforming to stereotypes’ is necessary. What IS necessary is being real; being honest with your co-workers, superior, and subordinates. If someone is honest with me, and I see that honesty reflected in their actions, that is irreplaceable in terms of building trust in my opinion and I will always give that person the benefit of the doubt, even if a problem arises, until they prove me wrong. This is the type of trust that is needed in working relationships in order to turn out the best possible product.
Dear S. Hicks,
Your comments are very insightful. I should make only one clarification. My intent was not to say that we should conform to stereotypes, but rather in the work place we need to manage our stereotypes to ensure they are good reflections of our group. This is because others may react to those stereotypes with an expectation and we are often held responsible to those expectations.
I am looking forward to reading your response.
Author – Trust in Virtual Teams
Thanks for chiming in, Tom. I certainly didn’t mean for my review to imply that you condoned the use of stereotypes at work.