Building Trust in Virtual Teams

Organizations utilizing virtual teams can attest to the economic advantages of working virtually. Companies lower overhead costs and increase satisfaction among employees who are motivated by flexibility and autonomy. Why then, when there is so much evidence regarding the benefits of virtual teams, do employees continue to express frustration with the arrangement?

According to the current research, the success of a virtual team (90%) depends on building trust. A virtual team may be able to devise a contingency plan when the technological components of virtual work do not function, but if a team has lost (or never achieved) trust, it may be destined to fail.

Building trust in virtual teams involves two different types of trust: cognitive (in team members’ heads) and affective (in team members’ hearts). Stephen Covey’s four primary building blocks of trust further define how to expand upon the cognitive and affective parts of trust. Jot down these four characteristics and spend a few minutes taking inventory of your team’s trust level:

Competence – Do you have the right people, with the right skill sets, in place to do the work?

This is a cognitive trust measure. We have all been on teams, virtual or not, where the members were fun engaging people but not capable of getting the job done. Further, inability to communicate erodes trust among team members. Perhaps that is what the two-thirds (69%) of American employees who responded to a Harris Interactive Poll about virtual work had in mind when they declared that management needed to communicate better in order to keep them engaged.

Consistency – Are you consistent in tone, managerial approach, and message?

This is an affective trust piece. Inconsistent management practices certainly are not limited to virtual teams. However, a virtual team has more to lose when messages are misplaced, people are unclear how to proceed, and confusion prevails. How you remain consistent in the delivery of messages and information will drive a significant part of the success of your team. Yes, I do mean you; there are parts of managing a virtual team that will fall squarely on you, more than in a traditional office. People thrive on consistency.

Compassion – Do you nurture each individual and put yourself in their shoes?

This is an affective ingredient of team chemistry. Every workplace has seen demonstrations of compassion, perhaps in expressions of sympathy when a relative has died, in looking the other way when a coworker experiencing deep personal troubles spends an extra five minutes on an unscheduled break, or when life’s challenges take precedence over the work to be done.

Your virtual team member needs your compassion, not only for “life challenge” times like the example above. Everyone on a virtual team is making adjustments to different rhythms, more physically isolated environments, and shifting sets of expectations.

Commitment – Do you demonstrate your commitment by what you direct people to do and how you make them feel about it?

Your virtual teams need to be absolutely sure of your commitment, both to them as a team and to the resources needed to help make their virtual team effective. Virtual team members need to know you are committed to you as an individual; it can be easy to lose sight of your personhood when you are usually represented by a string of characters on an email.

One way to demonstrate your commitment is to refuse to rely on email to communicate. Pick up the phone, send a skype invitation, look your employee in the eyes.

The Trusting Team

The process of becoming (and remaining) a team where members trust each other and trust you to lead them will not always be straightforward. The road to effective virtual teamwork is scattered with unexpected delays and frustrating times of gridlock. However, if you are driven to incorporate competence, compassion, consistency, and commitment, you stand to get more done, with less cost, and more satisfied employees!

I train extensively on the topic of Leading Virtual Teams. For more information, please contact me here.

Creating a Successful Virtual Team

Global Travel

A physically dispersed workforce presents unique challenges. And although we’ve seen several high-profile companies discontinue their virtual work programs, a 2013 Global Workplace Analytics Survey reports the number of employees who worked virtually grew by 80% between 2005 and 2013. Without a plan to help staff work and manage in a virtual environment, your business bottom line can be affected.

This post is the first of a four-part series addressing virtual teamwork, the misconceptions, and the strategies for increasing the potential for efficacy of virtual teamwork.

What Exactly Is A Virtual Team?

Powell, Picoli, and Ives define virtual teams as “as groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed workers brought together by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one or more organizational tasks.”

Organizations that opt for virtual teams frequently share these three primary objectives:

• Survival in a hypercompetitive market
• Ability to deliver results faster
• Capacity for encouraging individual creativity

Some organizations are fully “virtual” while others incorporate aspects of virtual work into their operational plans. Whenever workers are “dispersed,” the effect on work processes, team culture, and timely accomplishment deliverables can be dramatic. Whether the dramatic effect stands to build or destroy is something you as a manager can impact.

In my workshops about building and leading effective virtual teams, one of our first activities aims to dispel misconceptions and increase awareness of virtual team characteristics:

It is a mistake to believe that virtual teams will function appropriately when left alone.

“Out of sight out of mind” does not apply to virtual teams. As Jon Bachrach states in this post, “Effective team leadership is key to establishing a well-organized virtual business.” It would be naïve to assume that a virtual team does not need an attentive leader since it is impossible to “look over their shoulders.” While the virtual team member is likely to thrive on an ability to work more flexibly and avoid the logistical hassles of commuting, work-related errands such as dry cleaning, and waiting around for face-to-face meetings that do not materialize, that member needs to feel included, needs to have clear guidance regarding expectations, and needs to be able to communicate through an established chain of command.

Dynamics between members of virtual teams are more complex than those in face-to-face teams.

The inability to read non-verbal clues presents a hurdle to virtual team members that does not exist for in-person teams. Since 55% of communication is non-verbal, 38% is para-verbal (how you sound), and 7% is verbal, removing 93% of the context of communication forces a disproportionate dependence onto the verbal spoken word. Physical distance can contribute to an avoidance of conflict, it’s just easier to default to “dealing with it later” if an exchange was tense or unclear. If not handled proactively, negativity can fester.

Additionally, the organizational structure differs with virtual teams. Compared to traditional teams, virtual teams support flatter organizational structures with dim lines of authorities and hierarchies. Virtual teams do not, by their nature, accommodate the types of informal information exchanges that occur naturally in a face-to-face workplace.

Delays can occur in fixing problems or reaching consensus, whereas in traditional teams a meeting can be called at any time of the day when all the members are present together in the office, resulting in quick decisions and problem solving.

The success of virtual teams is not driven by technology.

It is easy to assume that having the right digital tools, a conference call system that connects everyone easily, and email will make the virtual team indestructible, but technology is only 10% of the success of a virtual team. In reality, technology only assists virtual teamwork. How a virtual team functions is largely dependent on the human side of the coin – the amount of trust, collaboration and knowledge sharing members enjoy has far greater impact on the success of a virtual team.

In upcoming posts:

In upcoming posts, I look forward to delving into the technology needs of virtual teams, how to nurture trust among virtual team members, and organizational considerations when building virtual teams.

For now, consider what Sebastian Bailey said in this article, “Virtual working saves money, is better for the environment and gives staff the flexibility they crave, so it’s no wonder that more and more organisations are encouraging it.”

Leading with Agility

Learning Programs

Alex Raymond is CEO and founder of Kapta, an enterprise goal management software that helps teams communicate goals, track progress and improve customer-vendor relationships. Given that Alex has worked and lived in 8 countries, I decided to ask his advice on how global leaders can unite and motivate dispersed teams. Here are his thoughts.

Alex, thanks for joining me today. Let’s start by talking about CEOs and other leaders, who are often levels removed from their employees. Creating a sense of connection can be a challenge when those employees are scattered around the world. How can leaders ensure their workforce feels heard – and how do they model accountability?

Agile methodologies are the answer here. As most of us know, “Agile” began as a software development practice and now it’s been adapted to business management practices as well. One of its chief tenets is listening to the customer. Well, that same concept applies to employees internally. The frontline needs to be heard by the decision maker. Obviously this creates stronger morale but it also empowers the leader to make smarter budget and resource allocation decisions because they have better information.

Another aspect of Agile that’s relevant is modeling responsibility. Employees need to feel personally responsible for their work and that’s something the leader can model by accepting feedback and advice. Show you’re listening. Be transparent. Offer employees visibility into company developments. By modeling that, you instill that responsibility and accountability in your workforce.

Thanks. That was very insightful and it actually leads into my next question. We know that employees are more engaged when they have a clear mission and purpose – both on a company level and in their specific job duties. How can managers ensure that employees feel valued even in an geographically dispersed corporation? How can leaders keep the mission clear in a company that spans continents and cultures?

One way is with goals. I’ll talk more about this in a bit but let me say right now that it’s vital to create big ambitious goals. Work with management to ensure the message is relevant to employees. Otherwise it becomes a mantra or slogan devoid of personal meaning. Managers need to frame the goals and the mission in a way that’s practical, something meaningful in the context of the employee’s day-to-day life.

This is especially true with scaling challenges. Leaders involved in global expansion are trying to maintain a cohesive company culture even as the company begins spreading into other cultures and languages. So the vision needs to be translated into daily work life. Employees care about what’s happening in their office, with their boss – not a distant corporate headquarters. So that translation needs to happen: “How does this vision manifest in my team?” Training is also a big help in keeping cross-cultural workforces on the same page, using the same processes.

You brought up goals – let’s dig into that. I know setting goals can feel obligatory and kind of dry in many companies. How can global leaders set goals that get employees excited?

As I said, don’t just do operational goals. You need major, ambitious, meaningful goals that galvanize your workforce. You only want to do a few – no more than 3 – and you want them to filter your work decisions. Do your daily tasks fit your goals? Do you need to reprioritize? Goal setting only works if the goals make you say no to something else.

A common mistake many leaders make is fixating on numbers. In fact you’ll benefit far more if you focus on growth and the lessons learned along the way. Hitting a number doesn’t necessarily indicate success or enlighten you. It’s also important to evolve from annual planning to rolling out 90 day plans. Your forecasts will be based on accurate information, the data sets will be shorter and fresher, and you’ll make smarter decisions. So it’s important to monitor your progress and revise goals once a quarter.

You mentioned Agile earlier. That’s a hot buzzword right now, but many leaders still aren’t sure how to inject agile practices into their leadership.

We see that in global business all the time; someone up top makes a bunch of plans without any input from the frontline, and then the project kicks off and the plans fall to pieces. Agile helps with that because the leader empowers employees close to the action to make decisions and removes roadblocks so they can act. The shift from annual to quarterly planning also ensures teams stay flexible and responsive to current input.

Thanks, Alex. These insights are invaluable. Readers, if you’d like more information on these topics, feel free to check out Kapta’s resources. In the meantime, please share how you’ve used goal setting and agile practices in the comments.