Working remotely is a fact of life. Even before COVID, it was on the rise and when the pandemic is over, there will be fewer people returning to a central workplace full-time. The genie is out of the bottle, as far as that goes. But there is a paradox at the heart of remote work that some people haven’t been able to deal with. Both these things are true: Remote work requires slightly more trust than when we share a workspace, but that trust is more fragile, easily broken, and harder to rebuild. How do you build and maintain trust among remote teammates?
One of the main factors in creating or re-establishing trust is that we are working, mediated by technology. The technology itself isn’t responsible for a lack of trust. If you are hiding something from your boss, the email system you use isn’t to blame for that. That’s on you. But technology does change the way we work and relate to one another. It’s not the cause of the problem, but it can be a complicating factor for sure.
>> Learn more at the webinar: Building Real Trust in a Virtual World
As we explain in both The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate, (and you’ll learn in our webinar) trust is built on three factors: are we aligned and share a common purpose, are both parties competent, and are we motivated to work together well? If one of these factors is out of whack—let’s say you don’t believe that Bob in Accounting is good at his job, and you have to micro-manage him—your trust in Bob (and his in you) will suffer.
It’s not WebEx’s fault. The tools we use are designed to help us overcome barriers to communication and to build solid working relationships. But there are limits to what they can do, and using them in many ways undermines what we know about creating great working relationships. For example:
- There is less “accidental” interaction. When you work in a shared space, you are bombarded with information about the people you work with, whether you know it or not. You see them in the hallway, and read their body language. Is Alice avoiding you? Are your co-workers smiling and looking you in the eyes? Do you overhear snippets of conversation or look over to see Bob on the phone again instead of working on that report? All of that helps create an impression of how things are going. If you suspect something is amiss, it’s easy to check out. When we work through communication, we get very little unsolicited information. We have to go after it. If we want to know how Alice is doing, we have to ask her. That might be part of the problem…
- Communicating through technology is less “rich.” True communication is more than simply data transfer. We pick up cues by tone of voice, body language and facial expressions that support our communication with others. But can you pick up subtle body language in an email? If you don’t see the confident look in someone’s eye when they accept an assignment, are you as trusting with that person as if you watch them nod and smile?
- Technology allows us to do what’s easy, not necessarily what’s best. Firing off an Instant Message rather than picking up the phone is easy and fast. But you can’t hear the other person hesitate when they say everything’s fine. You can’t pick up on how they feel overwhelmed, and this is one assignment too many. Yes, you sent the message, but you don’t really know if it was received, understood, or accepted.
- Technology alone can’t quiet the voices in our heads. When we work with other people, we get all kinds of evidence that support our biases or helps adjust them. You might not trust Alice, but Bob does, and he’s a pretty good judge of character, so everything is probably fine. When you work alone, you have only yourself to interpret clues as to what’s going on. It is easy to suffer from confirmation bias—Bob missed that assignment, so he’s not to be trusted—without having all the information.
You’ll see in most of these cases, what we need is evidence that supports or contradicts our assumptions and allows us to trust the other person. Technology can provide us with a lot of information and evidence of what people are doing, but we have to be proactive about seeking it out. We won’t see Alice’s hard work by just walking through the office. The proof must be somewhere we can find it, and we have to go after it.
It is possible to build trust in a virtual environment—teams have done that since the Roman Empire. But we need to be proactive in providing the evidence of our purpose, competence and motives, and even more proactive in seeking out what’s really happening. We can’t simply rely on past history or our prejudices.
As with so much when it comes to technology, the tools don’t make us trust someone or not, but how we use them can greatly determine how well our team functions and whether we maintain trust.
Written by: Wayne Turmel