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.

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