How to Build Trust in a Virtual Workplace
(Originally published in Forbes.)
High-performance organizations are built on trust. In high-trust companies, employees report (registration required) 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement, 74% less stress, 40% less burnout and 29% more life satisfaction. Trust is also a leading indicator (registration required) of whether people will evaluate you and your effectiveness as a leader positively or negatively.
Working virtually presents unique challenges to building trust. We no longer have the in-person casual and spontaneous interactions with colleagues — the water cooler conversations — that over time help us nurture trusting relationships. We also have less context for assessing others' behavior. For example, if you're late to a video meeting, people can't see that you've been tied up in another meeting and may conclude that you're not hardworking or committed. And with communication via online tools increasingly supplanting in-person communication, there is simply more room for misunderstandings to arise and linger.
Leaders tend to build trust by intuition, which works reasonably well for more experienced business professionals. However, there are advantages to a more systematic approach, and in our new virtual workplaces, it's critical.
Trust can be deconstructed into three components: benevolence, competence and honesty. With an understanding of these components, you can systematically take simple and practical steps to elevate the level of trust you engender in your virtual staff and colleagues. Here's how:
Benevolence. Leaders who establish positive work relationships are those who demonstrate care for others, who consider and value the interests of others. And this is the most important factor (registration required) in determining the level of trust a workplace leader inspires. In the virtual workplace, you need to intentionally replace the informal interactions that help build trusting relationships.
Dedicate time every week to meet with remote team members; simply connect and see how they're doing. Focus on the person — not their tasks — and building rapport. Especially during times of crisis and high uncertainty, it's imperative to show concern for others rather than push for results. Uncertainty is a well-known stress stimulator, and demonstrating empathy (registration required) for team members will strengthen your relationships.
Create structures to encourage informal interactions between team members. Take five minutes at the beginning of every meeting to check in and engage with people before diving into the task at hand. Prime engagement by preparing two or three check-in questions in advance. Questions can range from "What are one or two words that describe how you're feeling right now?" to more standard ice-breaker fare, such as, "What's the most ridiculous thing that's happened to you this week?" Encouraging people to share in this way helps replace the informal in-person conversation that contributes to trusting relationships. Virtual happy hours and coffees provide other fun and informal ways for virtual teams to interact.
Competence. Trust in leadership is also based on a leader's demonstration of on-the-job expertise and ability. In virtual teams where people can feel disconnected, strong communication is an especially critical leadership skill, one on which your competence will be judged and trust built or diminished.
Deciding what to communicate to or withhold from your team can be challenging. But the reality is that if you don't communicate frequently and clearly, your people will fill in the blanks with their own, usually worst-case, assumptions. This is all the more likely to occur in virtual teams and requires you to be proactive and forthcoming. When you're a leader, there's no such thing as over-communicating. Provide as much transparency as you can on company direction, policies and procedures, including the decision-making process. Deliver ongoing updates instead of waiting until you have all the answers. Be explicit about your expectations. No one wins when your team is kept in the dark and left guessing.
Share what you don't know. It's impossible to have all the answers. Pretending that you do will cause the very thing you want to avoid: a lack of confidence in your capabilities. While it may seem counter intuitive, leaders who ask for help (registration required) draw others to them through this display of humanness, inspire others by making them feel needed and garner trust and followers.
Honesty. The final component of trust involves sincerity and follow-through on commitments. Leaders need to say what they mean and mean what they say.
Have you ever heard the leader of a virtual meeting say, "I'll send follow-up information after the meeting" — and then nothing arrives? Or "We'll end on time today”"— and then they consistently run over? These seemingly small breaches will lead people to doubt your reliability and chip away at their trust in you. Stop and think before you make a commitment, and once you commit, be specific about what you'll do and when you'll do it. If you are unable to keep a commitment, address it directly or you risk an erosion of trust. The virtual world requires additional effort to build trust, so be vigilant about keeping commitments, both large and small.
Finally, people establish trustworthiness based on nonverbal visual cues, so be sure to turn your camera on for video calls. Since people unconsciously read body language for cues, position your camera so others can see you well and look directly into the camera. This is the equivalent of looking others in the eye.
In summary, leaders on virtual teams need to go over and above the normal measures to build trust. Intentional relationship building. Proactive, broad and honest communications. Staying visible and keeping little commitments. These deliberate acts will help you build trust from a distance and unlock higher performance in your organization.