A little over a decade ago, the remote workforce was dominated by people in outside sales roles. They came into the office on occasion for meetings or, if they were local, to load up on marketing brochures and office supplies. But for the most part, they were out of sight.
They certainly weren’t out of mind.
I can still distinctly remember the comments around the office: Are they really working? He probably spends half the day watching TV and running errands. She’s never there when I call—who knows what she does all day.
Of course, in light of recent events, today’s virtual workforce is no longer limited to sales roles. But even before this recent global COVID-19 pandemic, research from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com revealed 3.7 million employees were working from home at least half the time, and since 2005, the regular work-at-home population (not including the self-employed) had grown 103%. Fast forward to present day and there are now millions of people forced to work from home indefinitely.
But just because more employees and teams are working virtually, it doesn’t mean we’ve solved those age-old trust issues. In fact, with the rise of virtual teams, we’ve seen new challenges, from miscommunications and conflict to questions about accountability to a feeling of disconnect and detachment from each other and the team’s common purpose.
The news isn’t all bad. When the conditions are right, virtual teams can be more productive and more engaged than those who work together in the same office every day. The key is to make sure you have those right conditions in place.
4 Steps to Building Trust in a Virtual Team
A. Start with Clarity: Clarity keeps suspicion, anxiety and confusion at bay, no matter what the team’s circumstances are, but it’s even more important when working with virtual teams. Without regular face-to-face interaction, people can quickly lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish and how each role fits into it.
- Clearly and regularly articulate the team’s purpose, goals and priorities.
- Define roles and responsibilities and how each person contributes to the team’s value and output.
- Take advantage of real-time tools and technology to keep everyone up to speed and on the same page.
- When in doubt, be transparent. The more people know, the less they’ll “fill in the blanks” with assumptions and gossip.
B. Be a Stickler for Process: With good planning, your virtual teamwork engine will be humming along smoothly. Without it, productivity and projects can quickly derail. The processes that make the most sense for your team will depend on your team’s purpose and structure, but here are a few general steps you can take that will help your team stay on track:
- Develop some non-negotiable rules and step-by-step procedures that all team members will be held accountable to.
- Build commitment by detailing out individual expectations and being explicit about deadlines and responsibilities.
- Use resources like shared calendars, docs, online filing systems, and project management and collaboration tools to ensure consistency and avoid “version control” problems.
- Reassess and realign as necessary based on progress and results.
C. Don’t Forget the People: Technology has a way of taking over the conversation about virtual teaming, but people are still the most important factor in any team’s success. When in-person interaction is rare, everyone needs to pay even more attention to building that team spirit.
- Develop team members’ communication skills. Emails, texts, chats and even voicemails are easy to misinterpret, leading to confusion or, worse, conflict. All team members need to be able to deliver efficient, effective communications, regardless of the medium or audience.
- Regularly recognize and reward successes, and find opportunities for a few high-touch, team building experiences throughout the year.
- Implement channels for gathering and providing feedback so that people feel connected, involved and heard.
- Empower people with the information and skills to recognize their own and others’ diversity of thought, how they balance and support each other, and how they can work together most effectively to get results.
D. Build in Flexibility and Open the Avenues for New Ideas: Many virtual employees feel more engaged and productive because a remote setup gives them more flexibility over how the work gets done and a greater work/life balance. Once you have a shared framework and agreed-upon “rules of operation” in place to ensure milestones and accountabilities are met, you can build flexibility and freedom into the process to keep people motivated and inspired.
- Allow people as much freedom as possible to dictate how they get their work done. This requires a cultural expectation that, as long as the work is being done on time as required and others are involved in appropriate ways, all team members can work in the ways that are most productive for them.
- Encourage and empower the team to create its own future by tapping into its diversity of thought, perspective and ideas.
- Provide collaboration tools for idea sharing, brainstorming and problem solving.
- Get creative and have fun with it! At Herrmann, we have Slack channels for inspiration, pets, geeking out and other “random thoughts.”
Finally, if you’re leading a virtual team, remember: Your role is pivotal. It’s up to you to establish a culture of trust and engage each team member in a way that allows them to shine, collaborate productively with others and bring their best thinking to work—even if “to work” means going to a home office or a coffee shop.
When you're running a virtual team, time together is even more precious. Make the most of meeting time with the Meetings That Actually Work interactive toolkit!