Building Trust In a Virtual Team

This is a guest-post by Chris Bowler.

With all the technology available to us today, no matter what your company’s setup is like, you most likely have a few virtual coworkers.

Most corporations today are at the very least a heterogeneous environment — traditional offices mixed along with off-site coworkers or staff working from home.

Some companies are completely virtual. And research suggests that the biggest challenge to having an effective team is trust amongst these coworkers.

Why is trust so vital to a successful, productive team? In the simplest terms, a team works together to be productive.

And in order to work together, rather than work simultaneously, team members need a level of comfort with the abilities, competencies, and intentions of their teammates.

Trust enables a team to focus on tasks at hand rather than protecting each member’s own interests. The interests of the group become the interest of each individual.

How to Build Trust

So how can a team build trust? Different tactics will work for different types of groups, but there are some general concepts that will work for any team.

Social Interaction

This is probably the most important idea. Getting team members to know each other is crucial, and meeting in person is generally the best way to do that.

Even if a team is geographically dispersed, the benefit of meeting in person should be measured against the cost of getting a group together.

Of course budget and scope of a project may dictate whether or not this is feasible, but it should be the first option considered.

Share Leadership

Another key factor for any employee is ownership. Why do small startups have such passionate team members?

Because they have ownership in the product they are creating. And so it is with sharing leadership: give team members areas of responsibility to manage and they will ‘own’ a portion of the end goal the team is trying to meet.

Communication and Predictability

Communication on its own does not build trust. But it is the beginning of building that trust. Once enough communication occurs, teammates are able to learn the patterns of one another.

This leads to predictability, which is where trust begins to form. Being confident in the type of response you will get from teammates allows you to focus on the content of a message instead of the recipients possible reaction.

Consistent Processes

Teams have particular bits of work that need to be performed repeatedly. Because of this we build processes (how to create a new account, submit a change request, commenting on code etc).

And in order to be effective, processes need to be consistent. And communicated. When people know there is an overall ideal that should be adhered to but have never been given a logical, step-by-step plan for how to achieve that ideal, frustration will reign.

Build processes in a way that everyone on the team can at the very least be confident that all team members are performing these particular bits of work in the same manner.

And a crucial element to laying the foundation for processes is ensuring that each team member is included in any communication about these processes. Which leads to…

Ensuring Inclusion

In a virtual or heterogeneous team, in order for all team members to feel a part of the team, they must feel included.

This can be even harder for a team with a centralized office with outlying team members. All the points discussed so far are needed to ensure this feeling of inclusion exists.

All team members need to be a part of any significant communication and have avenues available to provide feedback.


One last item that needs to be mentioned is miscommunication. This has been discussed plenty before but is important enough to warrant a mention.

With a virtual team there will always be incidences of mixed signals. When 90% of communication is body language, electronic communication will often result in messages being received in a manner not intended by the sender.

Of course you want team members to be sensitive to this issue and proactive in resolving any misunderstanding that occurs. But there are also some good practices to keep in order to reduce the miscommunications:

  1. Write your emails while thinking from the recipients point of view.
  2. Keep messages short. Flowery prose will turn people off.
  3. Hand in hand with point 1 – brevity. Get to the point.
  4. Write a good subject line. Set the background for the message content.
  5. Leave the jokes for other mediums. One person’s joke is another person’s insult and in an email there is just too much of a possible misunderstanding.

Awareness Is the Beginning

Building trust within a virtual team can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. It starts with being aware and making the issue a priority. B

y using a lot of these tips, teams can bond quickly no matter what their setup and learn to trust in one another. Once you have trust, the focus can wholly be placed on the goals of the group.


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