Person in an online team  meeting

How to Build Trust in a Virtual Team

Remote and hybrid work are here to stay as leading companies recognize the value of distributed teams and flexibility. Meanwhile, workers across industries are demanding the right to work where they want and when they want. As a result, business leaders must invest time in learning the skills and practices needed to build trust in a virtual team. 

This trust, unfortunately, is absent in too many organizations. Many managers don’t believe employees are actually productive when they aren’t in the office, Microsoft research suggests. Meanwhile, workers don’t trust executives’ reasoning for wanting them back in the office. All executives, including HR leaders, have an imperative to improve this situation and empower managers to build trust with their teams, regardless of location. 

Building trust in virtual teams unlocks higher performance and engagement. Learn how our Whole Brain® Thinking framework can help your virtual team set the foundation for greater trust, stronger relationships and better results.  

3 Benefits of Building Trust in Virtual Teams 

A well-rounded virtual team provides and cultivates support, guidance, encouragement and trust for all team members. As remote work becomes the norm for many teams, leaders have no choice but to earn that trust if they want their teams to succeed.

By building trust in your team, you gain many advantages that allow your team and organization to thrive. 

Happier Employees Who Want to Stay on Your Team

Research led by Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and published in Harvard Business Review, found that workers who are part of high-trust companies are 29% more satisfied with their lives and 74% less stressed. This job satisfaction and sense of well-being can encourage retention, which keeps expertise in your team and prevents the costs incurred with turnover.  

Higher Productivity and Engagement

Zak’s research also found that people in high-trust companies have a higher productivity rate than low-trust businesses and are less likely to experience burnout. Employees who trust each other are more likely to collaborate and communicate. Better communication allows them to focus on doing their best work.

A Healthy, Respectful Workplace Culture

High levels of trust are reflected in your organizational culture. Strong cultures lead to better results, alignment and efficiency. By contrast, companies with a stagnant or toxic culture will struggle to maintain their current level of success, much less grow. 

One of the biggest reasons employees quit during the Great Resignation was because they felt disrespected at work, according to Pew Research Center. Disrespectful behaviors destroy trust and create resentment, ultimately increasing turnover. Employees in high-trust organizations, however, recognize everyone’s humanity in their interactions. They look for collaborative solutions to conflict rather than taking disagreements personally.

These benefits are available to any workplace but are especially important for virtual teams. Many organizations use physical presence to substitute for authentic trust; virtual teams don’t have that option. They must form real bonds and believe everyone else will fulfill their commitments.

Behaviors That Build Trust in Virtual Teams

Trust can’t be forced. It takes time to cultivate and can quickly be squandered. The good news is that you can build trust throughout your organization, starting with executive buy-in. HR leaders can then provide structure and guidance for managers to implement trust-building practices.

Increased trust is more than a feel-good initiative; it delivers tangible benefits for your team and organization. These behaviors build trust in virtual teams and can help your efforts.

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Promote Clarity, Transparency and Vulnerability

Clarity keeps suspicion, anxiety and confusion at bay, no matter the team’s circumstances, but it’s even more critical when working with remote employees. Without regular face-to-face interaction, people can quickly lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish and how their role fits into the bigger picture.

The communication aspects of Whole Brain Thinking prioritize clarity, positive intent, transparency and vulnerability, all of which are vital to building trust. Start at the leadership level. When employees see that leaders can be open and vulnerable, they’ll feel closer to those executives and are more likely to share their viewpoints.

Clarity, transparency and vulnerability also contribute to a psychologically safe environment for virtual teams. Team members demonstrate trust in their managers when they believe they can communicate wins, challenges and questions without fear. This extra level of communication also helps employees stay on the right track with their work. 

Senior executives, HR leaders and managers build trust when they:

  • Articulate the team’s purpose, goals and priorities. The more people know, the less they’ll fill in the blanks with assumptions, gossip or time wasted on the wrong activities.
  • Define roles and responsibilities, including how each person will contribute value to the organization.
  • Take advantage of real-time tools and technology to keep everyone informed and aligned. Default to transparency and self-serve access to information whenever possible.

Develop Shared Processes

With strong processes in place, your virtual team will find it easier to collaborate efficiently. Without them, projects can quickly sputter. 

Keep in mind that the techniques that work on-site might prove insufficient or ineffective with virtual teams. This is especially true when your processes lack documentation, rely on informal interactions or fail to centralize critical information. 

When developing processes for virtual teams, keep these tips in mind:

  • Develop non-negotiable rules that all team members agree to abide by.
  • Create step-by-step procedures for key processes or actions. These SOPs can cover project-based tasks, guidelines for escalating issues or any number of other scenarios.
  • Build commitment by detailing individual expectations and being explicit about deadlines and responsibilities.
  • Align everyone through technology. Ensure consistency by using resources like shared calendars, online filing systems and project management and collaboration tools. Doing so helps you avoid duplicative work and “version control” problems.
  • Reassess and realign your processes. Revisit what you’re doing regularly, and adjust based on progress, results and evolving circumstances.

Invest in Relationships 

Technology can dominate conversations about virtual teaming, but people are still the most important factor in any team’s success. You must take care of your employees and be sensitive to their challenges. Feelings of loneliness, isolation and detachment are possible in any workplace, but remote workers can be vulnerable to these feelings when they lack positive interactions.

In a survey of 2,000 U.S. and U.K. remote workers, 67% of workers aged 18 to 34 found it hard to maintain relationships with their colleagues. The report also found that 71% felt their now-virtual co-workers were more distant.

Remote work has created many benefits for employees, but it’s not without potential downsides. When in-person interaction is rare, everyone must focus on building specific behaviors that encourage camaraderie and team spirit. 

Encourage these trust-building actions from managers and their teams. 

  • Develop employees’ communication skills. All team members need to be able to deliver efficient, effective communications, regardless of the medium or audience.
  • Regularly recognize and reward success. Recognition can take many forms, including public praise at a team meeting, personal notes, or company-approved perks.
  • Create high-touch, team-building experiences. These events can take place throughout the year and include occasional in-person gatherings.
  • Implement meaningful feedback channels. Give your people forums where they feel connected, involved and heard.
  • Share wins and accomplishments. Talking about what went right can be a powerful validation technique. Share these stories through virtual meetings, emails, project management systems or even social media.
  • Empower your people. Teams think better when they have the information and skills to recognize diversity of thought, see how they balance and support each other and how they can collaborate most effectively to get results.

Employees want to feel seen and acknowledged for their contributions to the business and team. When leaders create easy ways for managers to offer recognition, employees will be motivated to continue delivering wins and building connection within the team.

Provide Flexibility

Many virtual employees thrive when they have flexibility over how and when work gets done. These employees are empowered to hit their work goals without neglecting their work-life balance or personal responsibilities. Flexibility retains structure around goals and values while freeing employees to find the best path forward.

Practice the plans and schedules aspect of Whole Brain Thinking in your cultural expectations around hours. Declare that employees can generally do work when they see fit and in hours that align with their time zone. If you require overlapping core hours or project-based exceptions, specify those, too.

Expectations should go beyond time zones. Every employee should have access to shared frameworks, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and agreed-upon goals. These resources help employees choose the best course of action while staying true to the company’s values.

Managers set the tone on flexibility. Employees watch your actions and whether you support their ability to control their workflow and set their own hours.

Encourage Collaborative Idea Sharing

Working at home doesn’t mean working alone. Successful virtual teams make it easy for employees to share their ideas, brainstorm and solve problems.

Culture is foundational for idea sharing. Organizations that punish people for thinking outside the box or for well-intentioned failures put a freeze on new ideas. Encourage and empower your team to create its own future by tapping into diversity of thought, perspective and ideas.

Turning ideas into reality requires exploration and trial and error. Encourage the brainstorming and innovation aspect of Whole Brain Thinking by providing teams with modern collaboration tools that unlock idea-sharing. 

Make sure to dream big. Encourage your team to get creative and have fun with it. Incremental ideas are welcome, but so are big, hairy audacious goals. Cultivate a space where employees at all levels feel comfortable sharing and working through these ideas.  

Trust Starts With How You Show Up

Building trust is a job for everyone in the organization. Leadership sets the tone, HR devises and implements the framework, and managers have a crucial role in instilling trust through their words and actions. 

Remote and hybrid work are essential components of modern organizations. Managers must evolve their skill sets and learn how to build trust in a virtual team. But they can’t do it alone — they need support from executives and HR leaders. Engage your virtual employees in ways that allow them to shine, collaborate and bring their best thinking to work — even if “to work” isn’t about going to the office.

Our Whole Brain® Guide For Remote Management & Distributed Productivity is based on our experience as a remote company and insights from our clients across industries. Download our guide today to get actionable tips and improve your remote team’s effectiveness and thinking.

The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.