How to create trust in virtual teams
The spatial revolution: 3 ways to build trust in your virtual team
With virtual and flexible working becoming increasingly common, businesses are having to keep up with the changing way that we work in teams. This ‘spatial revolution’ brings many advantages to the virtual workplace, but research suggests that these advantages can come at a cost.
With 41% of virtual team members reporting to never have met the other members of their team face-to-face1, creating and sustaining trust in virtual teams becomes very difficult. But trust remains a vital part of any effective team. Trust helps open communication between team members, creates psychological safety, collective belief in ability, shared leadership and task conflict. These key ingredients play a huge part in creating remote teams that consistently perform at the highest level.
With trust being so fundamental to success, how can it be created in a primarily virtual environment? Without face-to-face interaction the task of building trust in a virtual team can feel like being asked to create and nurture a garden in a desert: stifled by circumstance.
Here are our three top tips for building trust in virtual teams:
Top Tip 1 – Be aware of your ‘tells’
Making the right impression from the start is key. When working face-to-face we can observe the behaviour of others and make judgements about that person’s level of trustworthiness. We have a natural predisposition to assess indicators of cooperation and stay clear of the free-riders when it comes to trusting others. This evolutionary response does not work well in conjunction with the virtual nature of the modern working environment. This type of ‘monitoring’ information is limited and forces people to look for trustworthiness ‘tells’., almost like how a poker player tries to detect signs about the cards others are playing.
Little cues within a virtual team can go a long way. For example, being slow to respond to emails or requests may lead others to perceive you as less trustworthy or reliable. To help build trust in virtual teams, help people become aware of these tells and encourage people to be more informative of when they are unavailable.
Top Tip 2 – Share back new insights
Due to the lack of face-to-face interaction within virtual teams, subtle non-verbal cues such as facial expression, body language and tone are harder to detect. For many, building trust when team members have never met in person can be very difficult. A good way to overcome this and build virtual team trust is through co-operation.
Just as we are hardwired to detect free-riders, we also detect co-operation. When leading virtual teams, a great way to demonstrate a willingness to co-operate with others is through sharing knowledge. Research suggests that trust is dependent on our interpretations of each other’s level of credibility, reliability, and self-interest . Going out of your way to share any new knowledge with other members of your remote team helps to develop these trusting relationships.
Top Tip 3 – Encourage ‘non-task based’ trust
Quite often an individual’s trustworthiness can be assessed through our own assumptions of their behaviour. For example, if someone is consistently reliable with the completion of their tasks then ‘task based’ trust is created. Task based trust is common within virtual teams as usually, due to lack of face-to-face interaction, these are the only actions we are able to make assumptions from. To create a deeper level of trust, teams need to delve deeper than completing work tasks.
Getting to know members of a virtual team on a deeper level requires pro-activity and a conscious effort to build relationships on a ‘non-task’ basis. Leaders can introduce new virtual team members by highlighting personal details such as their hobbies and interests over academic achievements. Running short exercises such as sharing surprising facts about each other or discussing common traits helps encourage genuine bonding. On a more regular basis, dedicating a few minutes at the start of meetings to update each other on current affairs in their lives both professionally and personally will help develop trust in virtual teams.
As technology, innovation, complexity and globalisation continue to disrupt our business environment for the foreseeable future, we are required to swiftly adapt, especially within our teams. The rise of virtual teams brings many advantages: they save space, reduce travel budget, offer flexibility and increase talent pool diversity. But, it’s important not to overlook the challenges that our increasingly virtual world brings to team performance and to focus on building trust in virtual teams.
To read more about the challenges faced by virtual teams, download a copy of our insight paper, High performing teams in an increasingly virtual world.
 McDowell, T., Argawal, D., Miller, D., Okamoto, T., & Page, T. (2016). Organisational Design: The rise of teams. Article, retrieved from: Organizational models: A network of teams | Deloitte Insights
 Ford, R. C., Piccolo, R. F., & Ford, L. R. (2017). Strategies for building effective virtual teams: Trust is key. Business Horizons, 60, 25-34.
 McNamara, J. M., Stephens, P. A., Dall, S. R., & Houston, A. I. (2009). Evolution of trust and trustworthiness: social awareness favours personality differences. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 276, 605-613.