Why trust is the number one ingredient in successful remote working teams

by Nune Igityan

When people trust each other, teams are happier and more productive. But what happens to trust when we’re working remotely?

Trust is the building block of successful organizations. People need to know they can rely on their teammates, whether they’re working at the next desk or in a coffee shop 500 miles away.

Just look at the numbers. When people work at 'high-trust' organizations they're 50% more productive, 106% more energetic and take 13% fewer sick days. They're happier too. Less stressed, more engaged, more satisfied and less likely to burn out.1 This has an impact not just on the bottom line, but on the quality of what people produce and the services they provide.2

Building trust isn’t any more or less important when people are working remotely but it is different. So before making plans to build trust, it’s a good idea to understand what exactly it is you're trying to build.

So what is trust anyway?

Trust is about believing in people’s abilities, relying on each other to do what we say we’ll do, and having confidence that everyone will pull their weight. It’s also about relationships and friendships. Without these, there’s no room for trust to grow. And then there’s how trust cascades in a workplace - between managers and employees, and between team members themselves.

The Great Place To Work® Trust Index Employee Survey© rates workplace culture from an employee perspective. It analyzes both the level of trust between management and employees and the camaraderie between colleagues. For the index, trust is a matter of three things - credibility, respect and fairness. For credibility to thrive, employees need to see managers as competent and reliable. Respect means giving support, being collaborative and showing care, and fairness depends on equity, impartiality and justice.

Trust is a matter of three things - credibility, respect and fairness. For credibility to thrive, employees need to see managers as competent and reliable.

There's also the idea of cognitive trust and affective trust. Cognitive trust is about how people feel about leaders’ ability to do their job. This kind of trust isn’t about emotions, it's about how individuals view someones standing in the world in terms of skills and qualifications.

Affective trust is interpersonal and is all about empathy and relationships. According to Investors in People, a UK organization giving companies accreditation for good people management, both types of trust are essential for effective leaders. But different kinds of people will value the two types of trust differently. If you’re very ambitious, then cognitive trust is likely to chime with you more. If you’re more attuned to emotional intelligence, you’ll put a higher value on affective trust.

Researchers Reina and Reina have further divided trust into three types. Contractual trust is the understanding between people that they’ll do what they say they’ll do. It involves being clear about goals, roles, and responsibilities.

Competence trust is about showing faith in each other’s abilities - to make it work, managers need to delegate, and employees need to feel free to share knowledge.

Then there’s communication trust - created by telling the truth, being willing to share information, and making people feel safe to ask questions and raise issues. All these types of trust can break down, but one of the keys to good management is building them up again.

You don’t need to sign up to any particular way of thinking about trust. All the models are useful, and they all come back to a few key things: Credibility, relationships and communication. But how do you convey and nurture these when you’re not all working in the same place?

Trust in a remote working world

Even the most passionate supporters of remote working admit that trust is harder to gain and sustain in disparate teams. It causes pain for employers and employees. 57% of marketers at large enterprises say that performance management is an issue in long-term remote working.

On the other hand, there were repeated complaints from managers about remote workers’ productivity and engagement during the coronavirus outbreak. No one wants to feel uncertain whether employees are doing the work the way they should when they're out of sight. But equally, no one wants to think managers are breathing down their neck because they don’t trust them. It’s easy to see how remote teams can quickly break down if people can't resolve these issues.

Trust in on-site teams doesn't simply happens without effort. But when we work in the same place, there are opportunities for trust to grow organically, especially between team members. Chats by the coffee machine, going for lunch together, relaxing over a drink at the end of the week - these casual interactions are how people get to know each other. Furthermore, employees get to see close-up how managers interact with employees and how they do their work, so confidence in their abilities builds over time.

These things are missing in a world where teammates might be hundreds of miles away, or even in different time zones. And a manager might be someone the team has never met face-to-face and who they never see interacting with anyone but them.

So if it’s true that you can’t leave trust entirely to chance in an on-site team, the same is true in a remote working team where very little interaction will happen organically. It’s not that you can't build trust, but you'll need to work hard and work consciously to build it. Let’s look at how organizations can do it.

How to build trust with remote teams

Create a team mission statement

Put together a mission statement setting out goals and ways of working, then share it with everybody. You could have a chat with each team member about their working styles to help shape it. It’s a chance to get to know your team and their opinions, show you value their contribution, and get everyone on the same page, so you know what to expect from each other.

Make expectations clear

There’s no room for ambiguity in a remote team. People can’t pull their weight unless they know what they’re supposed to be doing. Managers need to set the right amount of work for people to do and be clear about their expectations. Everyone will feel more confident when they know what to do and how much time they’ve got to do it. But make sure people know they can reach out if there’s a problem.

Meet the needs of your team

Be aware of what equipment people need to do their jobs and make sure they have it. If you’re not sure, ask. Check-in regularly to make sure people have everything they need and respond to requests promptly.

Connect your remote team members

Your team can’t wander over to each other’s desks to say hello, so make an effort to connect them. Get people to work together who have complementary skills - and acknowledge those strengths to show you understand and trust your team. Set up project groups and hold team and sub-team meetings more frequently than you would in an on-site workplace. No week should pass without at least one all-team video conference.

Don’t make it all about work

Friendship is important. 63% of women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are twice as likely to be engaged with work as those who don’t. To help people make friends, set up chat groups, and organize fun remote get-togethers like quizzes, competitions, or just end-of-the-week chats. This way, people can get to know each other in a less formal setting.

Find out about building remote teams.

Recognize achievement

Recognition has the most significant effect on trust when it happens immediately after someone meets a goal - and when the credit is public. Use your chat channels to congratulate your team members when they’ve achieved something, so everyone knows how well they’ve done. Get people to nominate colleagues for recognition and give rewards like gift cards to show people they’re appreciated.

Acknowledge the differences

In remote interactions, people have to put more effort into being understood. You can’t see body language in an online chat or a phone call. Researchers say that even videoconferencing puts a higher ‘cognitive load’ on participants, which means they don’t process information in the same way they would in a physical meeting. Managers of remote teams can’t change this. But it’s essential to find ways to balance it by asking open questions to learn what someone is feeling or thinking. Encourage people to ask you the same questions and be prepared to answer honestly and openly in return.

Want to improve your next video call? Read our virtual team meeting guide.

Respond to messages

Research shows that timely, predictable communication is important in remote teamwork. People can’t just lean over a desk to ask a quick question so aim to respond to messages consistently and in a reasonable amount of time. If a query isn’t urgent and you’re busy, let the person know and tell them you’ll get back to them later. Don’t leave them wondering whether you’ve received their message.

Stay connected. Read these four ways to deepen relationships with remote workers.

Let employees take more control

Working flexible hours is hugely valued - with 71% of employees saying it appeals to them. The shift to remote working gives you more opportunities to offer flexible working as a perk.3 You can set some core hours where people have to be available, but you can give them a choice about when they complete their work. This shows you trust them to play a part in managing their workload, and shows they can trust you to be flexible and value their work-life balance.

Resist the urge to micromanage

Learn to let go. Managing a remote team means delegating just as you would in an on-site team. Making someone feel like you’re looking over their shoulder all the time will send the wrong signal and damage their trust in you. Give people plenty of opportunity to discuss their projects with you and provide clear, honest feedback.

Be open

Sharing ideas and opinions is what a trusting, collaborative remote working culture is all about. Ask people what they think and listen respectfully - and set the tone by telling the truth and being transparent. And while it’s important for people to have team meetings and one-to-ones in their calendars, don’t schedule everything. Keep your virtual door open so people feel comfortable to post a message or video call you when they need to.

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