My previous article in this series dealt with how to communicate and co-ordinate effectively in a virtual team. Here we look at how to build trust when you can’t meet in person.
One of the problems of virtual teams is that communication tends to become more formalised: you book calls or virtual meetings at a certain time for a certain duration. With everyone feeling under pressure to get more done in less time, the meetings tend to be task focused and lack the spontaneity and informality of interactions that happen within an office. That means that you have to work harder in a virtual team to simply connect with each other on a human level. Understanding your team-mates’ view on things outside this task and this team, getting their sense of humor, learning how their moods swing – all these things give you the feeling you “know” your team colleagues and are key to trust-building. But in a virtual team, you have to put conscious effort in to build them into our interactions. Banter a little on your calls and virtual meetings.
A common tactic in virtual teams is to bring people together for a kick-off meeting and then retreat to your virtual world. But research suggests that this may not be the best strategy. In a counterintuitive finding, Jeanne Wilson and her colleagues found that over time, the level of trust between team members was not significantly different between teams that had started face to face compared with teams that started and continued with communication via technology. The lesson from this is that, if you are going to continue with virtual communication, start that way and learn to make it work.
Make it fair. Change the times of your meetings so that it’s not always the same people who have the worst time. Make everyone virtual or nobody virtual; rather than have 7 people in the same room and 2 joining by phone. The time difference, geography, or the disadvantages of always having to use technology can become a faultline for the team, especially if the same sub-group of people constantly feel unfairly affected by these choices.