The Future of Trust; how to get your business partner to jump off a cliff when you ask them to. (PART 1 of 2)

Illustration by Mariangel Briceño

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In a world where remote is normal and trust is the only magic bullet businesses have, can strong business relationships be built over Slack? We say “yes.”

We hired Ivan, the individual who will be heading up our brand new office in Barcelona(!) — and no one in our company, including our founders, has met him face-to-face.

That’s gotta be a red flag, right? Can Alex and Ryan fully trust someone they’ve never met in person with the future of their first international expansion? Even if they could, should they? There is no shortage of business literature about building trust: trusting the mission; trusting the process; trusting the leadership; trusting your peers. The foundation of the most successful teams of all sizes is…wait for it…trust. We consulted an expert on trust, who for decades has made their business the business of getting people, teams, and organizations to work better together. They told us, “Trust is fundamental”. Got it.

The Formula for (virtual) Trust

If we accept trust as a fundamental ingredient to success in a world where the virtual workforce is growing exponentially, can relationships built over Slack and Skype — (strike that, we only need Slack at this point) — be just as strong, trusting, and ultimately effective as those built in proximity? Are specific elements necessary to build trust, and do those elements involve spending time with someone face to face (ie. trust falls, sitting knee to knee staring deeply into the eyes of another)?

To answer this question, we looked to a formula from The Trusted Advisor: Maister, Green and Galford; Free Press, 2001.

The Trusted Advisor: Maister, Green and Galford; Free Press, 2001.

After examining the relationship between L+R team members Alex Levin, Ryan Riegner (Brooklyn based co-founders) and Ivan Leider (Barcelona based Director of Engineering), we found that when the variables of distance and limited physical connection were added to this equation, the formula functioned essentially unaltered.

In a virtual trust formula, credibility (you know what you’re talking about), reliability (you do what you say you’re going to do — over and over again), intimacy (you care about me and want to understand me), and self-orientation (you are someone who is more interested in your issues than you are in mine), behaved in very similar ways as they did in The Trusted Advisor’s original formula.

Credibility

  • Credibility could still be built through a resume, portfolio of past work, and references without two people being in the same room. By the time they met each other Ivan had over twenty years of experience under his belt and Alex and Ryan, while relatively new to the game, had amassed an impressive portfolio of clients and work at L+R.

Reliability

  • Building reliability simply depended on time and opportunity. Ivan was brought on for more projects, was given more responsibility, and in each instance — he delivered. Lack of physical co-location didn’t not impact trust building when expectations were met and even exceeded over time.

Intimacy

  • Even intimacy, a word that seems to communicate a certain physical closeness, didn’t require proximity. Both Alex and Ivan described moments of “serendipity” and being “so effing excited” through exchanges over Skype, the phone, or even “just clicking and jumping on the same boat with certain ideas in our work on projects”. It seemed that shared moments of excitement and understanding could effectively happen virtually. Excitement and synchronicity could translate into a close, “we’re all in this together, on the same page” feeling. Alex, Ryan, and Ivan proved that intimacy could grow despite distance.

Self-Orientation

The last piece of the original equation is the real lynchpin. The thing about this equation is that self-orientation is the denominator, so even if the score of all the other elements is high, if self-orientation is high — you may as well start over. There is no hope for trust. Ivan, Ryan, and Alex however, were able to communicate in a way that transmitted a team-agenda over a self-agenda despite the ocean that bisected the group.

  • When asked what he was most excited about his new role as L+R’s Director of Engineering, without prompting Ivan launched into a detailed description of ideas to grow and strengthen L+R as a company. Despite the distance, Ivan seemed to understand if the clients needs were served, L+R would do well and Ivan would succeed professionally. The agenda was aligned.
  • Alex explained that he was motivated by his employees’ satisfaction — those who he saw every day as well as those where his interaction was primarily on a virtual basis. “Ivan has seen a lot in his career, and for him to choose L+R and think it was worth his while to choose this as the next step in his career, I want to prove him right. I wake up every day thinking about how I will make my employees proud to work here.” Alex walks the walk too. When Ivan mentioned Spain as a really interesting business opportunity, Alex and Ryan listened. L+R’s newest space in Barcelona will open in March 2017.

There it was — the original trust formula held true with the added constraint of virtual communication! But still, it was clear that something was lost in virtual communication. When using Skype, people miss a lot of non verbal cues and there are always technological glitches that take attention away from the interaction. It is hard to be fully present with each other, no matter how good everyone’s intentions are. It became clear that credibility and intimacy in particularly were sensitive to nonverbal cues and face-to-face contact.

So what made up for the loss of these nonverbal cues in Ryan, Alex, and Ivan’s case? How did they strengthen their credibility and intimacy with an ocean separating them? We discuss the two asterisks we added to the “virtual” Trust Formula in Part 2 of this article!