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How to Build Trust in Remote Teams During COVID-19

Transitioning to managing a remote team when your team is normally co-located requires a steep learning curve for both team leaders and team members. Throw in the COVID-19 crisis and high levels of anxiety and trust levels in the team can come crashing down if not managed correctly.

Whenever there is change and uncertainty, employees will naturally withhold expending too much energy into a team, until it feels safe to do so. Continuing to boost your teams trust levels is critical, while everyone is learning the ropes. This is trickier to do remotely because repairing and maintaining trust is much easier face-to-face. To ensure team performance doesn’t drop precipitously requires the team leader, and team members, to be willing to not only change how they interact, but also their underlying mindsets.

That’s because humans have this odd tendency to only believe something is true if they can see it. In a work environment, leaders only believe team members are working if they can see them work.

Today, team leaders have to cast aside this limiting mindset that has literally stopped remote working from really taking off in the past. Now, we’re all in this interesting workplace experiment where leaders have no choice but to let go of the reins and trust that people are getting work done. This requires leaders to stop basing people’s performance on whether they’re seated at their desk from 9-5. The truly liberating and empowering benefit of working from home is that people can adjust their work schedule to fit in with their lives. As long as they can attend important meetings and produce the work required, the set times people work are irrelevant.

Pivoting from measuring time at work to delivering outcomes takes a bit of getting used to. Particularly for more mature leaders, who have been conditioned since school to work during set times. Usually the tendency is to micromanage when people aren’t visible – sending an unintentional message to employees that they’re not trusted. The result is employees will overwork to demonstrate their contribution. And during this anxious time, this only compounds stress levels.

The good news is that this can all be avoided if leaders are consciously facilitating trust in their distributed teams. Visibility can be improved through using project management software that makes progress and work achieved highly visible to all. While both the team leader and team members need to modify how they work together.  Casual Clothes Fridays is an example that’s now been changed to Formal Fridays (because don’t we all miss getting dressed up now that we’re in hibernation?)

Like learning any new skill managing working remotely takes time to get right. After all, it’s a bit like moving a team from playing netball to football. All the behaviours, mindsets, interactions and communication styles all need to change.

To keep trust levels optimised, there are two elements leaders to focus on. The first one is:

  1. Building trust with each individual in the team and
  2. Fostering trust between team members.

Counter intuitively, leaders need to spend more time structuring communication and relationship building between team members than when working separately.

Six Steps to Managing Remote Employees

Let’s go through the steps to do this using our SUCCEeD Together Trust Framework®. This is based on six trust drivers that make it easier to leaders to identify and understand trust issues.

Support – Leaders who care, get the most out of their people. Support underpins all of the other trust drivers and is more critical to remote teams than co-located ones. Essentially, humans don’t trust people who don’t care about them. So leaders need to do more work to ensure that team members feel supported by everyone in the team.

This is so critical because distributed teams have limited opportunities to spontaneously interact in hallways and food areas, which naturally bonds people together.

According to the Building Workplace Trust Study by Interaction Associates, the main way virtual workers wanted their leaders to build trust was to convene periodic face-face meetings (40%). Of course, during the pandemic this is impossible. But for teams that have each previously met in person, building trust remotely is easier. But you can’t take it for granted.

If you’re a team leader, there are two areas that you need to focus on in improving support for remote teams:

  1. Foster Visibility – This is on three levels. The first one is ensuring that you share as much information as possible. It can be easy to forget to share making people feel left out. Make it a general rule to be as transparent as possible, in order to provide the right context for people. The second level is making sure you’re accessible. In a workplace, it’s important for leaders to walk the floor and speak to people daily. Of course, it’s impossible to do this virtually. To get around it, schedule the same time everyday when people can call you and get an immediate response. Another example is to let employees know that if they mark their email as a high priority you will respond to it that day. Finally, make sure everyone has their webcam on in meetings. Video meetings encourage stronger connection between team members than phone calls.
  2. Help Team Members Understand each Other – Remote teams are less likely to recover from team members that are not trusting or trustworthy.  Creating opportunities for people to learn about each other outside of work is important. Make sure that you schedule social time before or after a meeting to allow people to talk about their personal lives. You can even have virtual coffee or lunches, where people chat over meals. If your organisation is big enough, consider have a Slack channel where people can find others in the organisation that share the same interests such as knitting or photography.

United to Solve Customer Problems – We trust people who are similar to us.  In a team, you have lots of different people thrown together. Unite everyone by regularly aligning people to how the work solves customer problems. On an individual basis, connect how each person’s contribution brings value to the team and organisation. In team meetings, regularly share customer success stories, customer feedback and challenges.

Clarity of Thinking and CommunicationHumans need certainty and communication is all about reducing ambiguity.  Without it, we tend to not trust a situation. This trust driver requires leaders to spend time clearly thinking and planning how they are going to provide employees with the right information to do their job.

According to the Building Workplace Trust Study by Interaction Associates, there were three things that virtual workers required from their team leaders:

  1. Reveal their thinking about important issues
  2. Remind team members of their common purpose
  3. Create clear working agreements.

To do this requires spending time one on one with people and convening together as a team to align everyone to your shared purpose.

With each individual, make sure you:

  • Discuss what success (including quality) looks like for the team and how their tasks connect to that.
  • Work with them to create their own goals that are tied to the team’s overarching goal (and share their goals at the team meeting).
  • Clearly articulate how they need to communicate progress with you. For example, do they need to send you a summary email of work done at the end of the week or would you prefer a daily phone call?
  • Explain their role, responsibilities, and your expectations. Encourage them to repeat back to you what they believe them to be.

For the team, you’ll want to ensure you have regular meetings, in order to co-ordinate team schedules and progress updates.

  • Ensure each team member talks about their progress to help everyone understand each person’s contribution. Make each individual responsible for gathering this information and presenting it. This is important because we only trust people who are competent at their job. Encouraging each member to prove their competency will help others trust them.
  • Schedule weekly check-ins to discuss what people are working on, what’s keeping them stuck and what is working. If you’re team is new to remote work, implement daily check-ins.  You can also start with a meeting (say 8am) and then finish the day with a meeting (say 4pm) to provide people some of the structure they would have if they were working in the office.

Candour – You can’t fix problems, if people aren’t willing to talk about them. Ensuring team members feel safe to talk about issues is one of the defining factors of a high performance team. Unfortunately, conflict can go unresolved because it’s easy to agree in an online meeting.

Improving candour involves the team leader modelling the right behaviours that enable people to speak up. Allow people to challenge you and respond by listening and asking curious questions. Give positive verbal feedback for those brave enough to express issues and concerns. If your team does not naturally talk about issues, ask in meetings: Who has a different point of view on this issue? Consider asking people by name to articulate their support or concerns.  

Empowered to GrowYou can’t grow a company unless the people within it are growing.  You want to make sure that learning is safe and it’s a journey that you’re all on together.

Set aside time to learn jointly. This can either be formal learning (eg: learning how to read a profit and loss statement) right through to ensuring that people are learning from each other. Don’t forget to do training because you’re remote.

Encourage project wrap-ups to share lessons learned. And also encourage team members to provide virtual presentations that you can record it, and tag, so that it is easily searchable.

DependabilityAt the heart of trusting others is being able to rely on them.  In a workplace team, we need to feel that others will make good on their promises and do the right thing. This requires ensuring that each team member understands all of the interdependencies of their role. The role of the leader is to provide a holistic understanding of the interactions between all the moving parts and ensure everyone is accountable. Check in with team members regularly about any bottlenecks that are potentially stopping team members from delivering on goals.

Successful Remote Teams

Great remote teams thrive in a culture of trust. While it is more difficult to build trust when team members aren’t face to face, it is still achievable. It just requires more planning and structure.

The payoff can be extensive. According to Interaction Associates, virtual workers tend to report a significantly higher level of trust in their organisation than their non-virtual workers. And the benefits can be quite staggering – the same research study found that organisations that have high trust have 2.5 times the revenue generation of low trust organisations.