Leading Virtual Teams: The Trust Paradox
I have a confession to make.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was not a believer in virtual work. I doubted whether remote interactions could offer the same richness as in-person ones, and was skeptical that a virtual class could provide even a fraction of the value that an in-person class could.
As was the case for many people, my viewpoint on virtual work changed in the blink of an eye.
In the Spring of 2020, I was teaching an evening MBA negotiations class and looking forward to doing a little hiking and golfing over spring break. Life had other plans. On Monday I received an email advising me to be prepared to deliver my course 100% remotely after the break due to COVID. On Wednesday I got another email telling me the course would definitely be shifting to Zoom-based instruction beginning the following week. Needless to say, I had to get comfortable with virtual meetings very quickly.
That first semester certainly had its challenges. One particularly memorable moment came when my neighborhood lost power during my final class, taking my internet access with it. As I delivered my final lecture outside via my cell phone and the light of a mosquito candle my wife brought out while one of my students advanced the slides, I couldn’t help but think, “How in the world did we get here?”
Luckily for me, some very smart people at ASU had foreseen online learning would be pivotal in the future and developed a set of tools that allowed my colleagues and I to provide high-quality educational offerings despite never setting foot on campus. Although I still prefer in-person instruction, I have to confess that much more is possible interacting with students virtually then I had ever dreamed.
The pandemic marked a turning point for many organizations and leaders when it comes to working virtually. Prior to COVID, may leaders felt as I did — that in-person was by far the preferable mode of interacting, and that working virtually was a last resort. That viewpoint has shifted. There are some important challenges for us as a society to make sure everyone has access to the technology needed to work remotely. But those of us privileged to enjoy that access had to admit that on some days it was kind of nice to not worry about getting dressed up for work or making a lengthy commute into the office.
The statistics bear this out. A recent survey by GitLab found that 52% of employees worldwide say they would think about resigning from an exclusively co-located organization in favor of one that offers them the option of working remotely. The message to organizations and leaders is clear: if you want to attract and retain the best talent, empower your employees to work remotely.
The shift to remote work, however, offers challenges for leaders. A top leadership goal is ensuring strong working relationships between team members, and virtual work presents unique challenges in doing this. A key issue is trust — the willingness of team members to accept some degree of personal vulnerability based on their expectation of how another members of the team is going to behave. Without trust, critical team processes grind to a halt. Trust is even more important when working remotely — as scholar Charles Handy noted in his excellent Harvard Business Review article “Trust and the Virtual Organization,” “If we are to enjoy the efficiencies and other benefits of the virtual organization, we will have to rediscover how to run organizations based more on trust than control.”
The challenge, though, is that one of the ways trust grows fastest is through face to face interactions. These interactions let us get to know our colleagues on a personal level and observe how they approach their jobs. It is easier to trust the person across the hall whom we chat with at the coffee machine than a person working in a different city or state whom we have only seen during remote meetings.
In other words, one of the major dilemmas remote work poses for leaders is that working virtually simultaneously requires elevated trust AND makes that trust trickier to establish.
But all is not lost: below, I share 7 “Rules of Trust” that Handy proposes in his article, and add my own thoughts about the implications for virtual leaders.
1) Trust is not blind. For trust to develop, people have to know one another well, have observed them in action over time, and feel they are committed to the same goals. Implication for virtual leaders: Leverage technology to make it as easy as possible for team members to get to know one another and track one another’s progress. Many programs (e.g., Microsoft teams) offer chat features that can help with this. Try to ensure team membership remains stable for an extended period of time, and share examples of team members who are behaving in trustworthy ways.
2) Trust needs boundaries. Unlimited trust is unrealistic, but all you need is trust in someone’s competence, integrity, and commitment to a goal. Implication for virtual leaders: Be very clear about defining goals, timelines, and processes.
3) Trust is tough. People who aren’t trustworthy have to go. Implication for virtual leaders: If there are team members who repeatedly fall short of expectations or cannot be relied upon to do what is needed, make the tough choice to replace these people to ensure the success of the larger group.
4) Trust demands learning. For trust to endure, virtual teams must be flexible enough to keep pace with rapid environmental change. Implications for virtual leaders: Promote a learning rather than a performance mindset among team members, model flexibility and patience in adopting new technologies and styles of work.
5) Trust demands bonding. Even close-knit and efficient virtual teams can cause problems if their goals are not aligned with those of the larger organization. Implication for virtual leaders: Be effortful about developing a shared vision and values (see my prior post on leading change), and then reinforce the vision and values through personal example.
6) Trust needs touch. Personal contact is extremely important in developing trust. Implication for virtual leaders: Even if your team meets mostly remotely, find opportunities for face-to-face interaction. These interactions are particularly important early on in a team’s life, and should be more about letting people get to know one another than the task.
7) Trust requires leaders. In remote work, formal leaders may have less visibility into team members’ needs. Therefore, “shared” informal leadership among multiple team members is critical. Implication for virtual leaders: empower team members to take action, raise ideas, and help one another without needing to ask for permission, and promote a mental model of leadership as something that is co-created by many team members working together.
Attending to these rules of trust can help leaders leverage the benefits of virtual work while overcoming one of the major challenges. Give them a try!