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Building trust on virtual or remote teams

7 min read

As our workplaces change and more employees work remotely, how do we help their teams excel? How do we help them build the trust they need to perform at their best and to hold each other accountable if they aren’t? We can start by building trust on the team.

Trust doesn’t happen naturally. We probably all feel like we’re trustworthy, but we aren’t always sure of others. And there might not be much time for everyone on a team to prove themselves. So how can we encourage trust? How can we help build high-performing, high-trust organizations? How can we purposefully encourage trust-building as HR professionals, as managers, as leaders, and as team members?

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Leaders model the way

Leaders can take specific steps to promote trust. They take the time to know team memberswhat motivates them, what their hobbies are, what stresses them, their kids’ names, their professional goals, etc. By arranging opportunities for the team to meet in person or in their own virtual space, the leader reminds the team that time spent building or restoring trust is time well spent. After all, there has to be a relationship before there can be a trusting relationship.

Leaders should check in with employees rather than check up on them, providing information, guidance, feedback, mentorship, support, and necessary resources. This should be done individually and as a group. The leader models how to ask for and respond to feedback. The good team leader listens, then acts on behalf of the team and their work.

It’s also important that teams know where the final authority lies. If this is clear, conflicts and confusion over approvals or direction can be avoided. Is leadership fluid throughout the project, based on who is most knowledgeable about each step or deliverable on the project? Is there an outside sponsor of your team who has ultimate responsibility and authority? Is leadership part of the team or outside the team? When, where, and how will the leader, or person with authority, be involved? Leaders can make it easier to trust them by helping the team understand the leadership role on the team.

“It’s been my experience that the people who gain trust, loyalty, excitement, and energy fast are the ones who pass on the credit to the people who have really done the work.”

Robert Townsend, former CEO of Avis


We all learn about trust and sharing as children. If a child won’t share, they won’t be chosen as a playmate. So how can we build sharing into teams to promote trust?

Shared expectations

We all make judgments and we know that others make judgments. It’s a lot easier to accept this fact when we know how we’ll be judged. Managers might make their expectations clear, but team members also need to do this and reach agreement on team norms. Common issues that need to be addressed:

  • How will we communicate questions about the project?
  • How will we alert others if we can’t complete a task or there is a delay?
  • How will we communicate if there’s a crisis?
  • What will be held confidential on our team?
  • Is it OK to brag or show excitement about something we’ve just accomplished?
  • How will we address time zone differences?
  • How will we show our commitment to our project?
  • How will we hold each other accountable?
  • How will we offer feedback to each other?
  • How will team members who work from the office keep those outside the office in the loop of general office news?

Personality tests can make it easier to discuss some of these issues. For example, it makes it easier for the team to understand that when Chad gives a one-word reply that’s just his style, but when Charlie does it, it might mean he’s upset or feeling rushed or pressured. It can make it easier to understand that Charlene isn’t dragging her feet because she’s being passive-aggressive, but she’s probably worried about the accuracy of her work and is simply running another check. Charlotte isn’t wasting time sharing a photo from her vacation, but is trying to bridge the gap of time spent apart and maintain a social connection with everyone.

It’s important to onboard new team members by reviewing these “rules of engagement” the team has agreed upon, and to renegotiate them in light of new members. It’s often helpful to bring in an outside facilitator or someone from HR to assist with these discussions as an “outsider” may see what the team might be blind to. They can also help amplify the new person’s voice if necessary.

“Trust is not built in big, sweeping moments. It’s built in tiny moments every day.”

Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead

Shared stories

The team I’m on used to get together regularly for lunch. Sharing food is a social event I think all cultures enjoy. It’s a time we just naturally use to share stories. It’s not that easy any longer, but we still do our best. The organization schedules a delivery of lunch to us. This opens up discussions around our favorite foods, regional food differences, and the availability of deliverable food in rural locations. It’s an easy way to begin talking about our differing choices and differing values.

We also use technology to share both business and personal updates. We learned from our Five Behaviors Team Development program just how important sharing personal stories can be to building trust. Stories make it easy for us to find our commonalities and arouse our curiosity about each other. Stories engage us with the storyteller. So we have added personal check-ins along with our project-based ones. We welcome personal stories into our business spaces.

Don’t ignore the power of personal connections. These make it easier to ask for and accept help, to initiate hard discussions, to keep energy and enthusiasm high.

Shared time

Communication needs to be regularly scheduled. It’s so easy to not want to bother someone with a phone call or text, or decide to wait until you have more to report. It’s also easy to become untethered to the group without regular communication. If no one is talking with you about the project you’re working on, your commitment to it will suffer. There are numerous tools available to assist teams to stay in contact and to collaborate across distances. Take the time to find the tools that work for your team.

Invest in any technology or technology training necessary to keep your team connecting and collaborating.

“Trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.”

Great Place To Work Institute

Acknowledge the awkward

Some of the conversations held about remote projects and virtual teamwork can feel awkward and forced, and that’s OK. It might seem like you’re wasting time going over assumptions about how and when to communicate. It might feel rude to ask someone publicly why a task hasn’t been completed. It might seem unnatural to directly state that you were hurt by a curt response to your email. You might feel vulnerable saying you won’t return phone calls or texts during the time you set aside for a medical treatment. But the team will benefit from this type of clarity.

Since remote teams don’t have the added information about someone that comes from being in the same room with them, communication needs to be even more precise. People need to be better about asking for clarification, assuming the best intent from others, and verifying assumptions. If we share an office, I can tell when you’re not feeling well and that I should invite you into a collaboration space tomorrow. If I’m working remotely, I have to rely on you to tell me that this is not a good time for you and that you do want to collaborate with me later.

New technologies often require getting outside our comfort zone, both in terms of learning the technology and how we use them to communicate. This uncomfortable and awkward learning period is one where we can practice trusting each other and supporting each other.

Times of change can be challenging for teams. Before everyone settles into routines and learns what to expect from each other, everyone needs to become great listeners and assume positive intent from the actions of team members.

Trust is built through vulnerability and vulnerability can be unsettling, uncomfortable, and scary. Trust involves taking a risk on someone else, but it can be a reciprocal risk. If I trust you to react professionally to difficult feedback or to keep confidential a personal detail, you will be more likely to offer your own trust in exchange. Expressions of vulnerability are proof that a group of people is truly a working team.

“Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Hire right

Some people will not perform well remotely. Either they aren’t committed enough, skilled enough, or they simply don’t enjoy working away from their team. So it’s important that those we ask to work from a distance are those who are interested and can do it successfully.

Great communication skills is the number one ability a new remote team member should have. It’s important that they can understand written and oral instructions, write concise yet complete emails, ask relevant questions, write a good synopsis, and make sense over video or audio channels. Preemployment tests like PXT Select™ can assist in judging one’s level of communication skills. Some managers like to conduct phone or video interviews or provide a quick assignment to help them evaluate communication skills.

Knowing how personality tests are sometimes used incorrectly in hiring, I must remind readers that we should not assume that one personality style will be a better remote team member than another style. Introverts are not going to be better at working remotely than extroverts just because they don’t need as much external stimuli. Each personality style might need to stretch themselves and work on new skills.

“It is essential to employ, trust, and reward those whose perspective, ability, and judgment are radically different from yours. It is also rare, for it requires uncommon humility, tolerance, and wisdom.”

Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa

Onboard quickly

We’re more likely to give someone the benefit of doubt when we first meet them. So make use of this initial goodwill and build upon it. Provide time for sharing stories about each team member and about the team’s history and culture. Provide newcomers with a “User’s Guide to Me” or a “Manual of Me,” explaining how each member prefers to work. Promote a sense of “being in the same boat” as others on the team even if everyone arrived at the boat from different directions or at different times.

Team leaders and managers should ensure that all team members understand the team goals and how each of them can use their unique skills to contribute. A recent survey by Wiley Workplace Research found that although almost all recently hired workers felt welcomed and accepted, only 38% finished their onboarding experience with an understanding of what was expected of them. The job description provided to the new hire and the job description in team members’ minds should be aligned. Team leaders should know what the new hire was offered and how the job was presented and explained. Without knowing how their performance will be judged, new team members are more likely to see others as judges rather than collaborators, and trust will take longer to build.

“We think so much about what we want employees to do—sign up for benefits, set up their direct deposit, get a computer—but we need to focus on how we want them to think and feel. Stitching together the experience from their first day to final day at the company matters.”

Pat Wadors, chief people officer at UKG

Coaches, HR, and even other team members can help facilitate good communication and difficult conversations, thereby building and modeling trust. They can acknowledge that working together can have its difficult moments and that it’s worth working through them together.


Kristeen Bullwinkle

Steeped in Everything DiSC since 2010. Strongly inclined CD style. Leadership style and EQ mindset: resolute. Believes strongly in the serial comma.

Certifications from Wiley:
Everything DiSC, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

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