Remote work has become integral to our professional landscape, and trust remains the cornerstone of successful collaboration. Even as the world adapts to distributed teams and virtual interactions, the paradox of remote work persists: it demands more trust than traditional office setups, yet that trust can be easily strained and difficult to rebuild. In this digital age, where technology mediates our professional relationships, the challenge is not the tools themselves but how we employ them to foster and maintain trust in virtual teams as leaders.
Technology and trust
One of the main factors in creating or re-establishing trust in virtual teams 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.
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.
Four factors that can create a lack of trust
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.
1. 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.
2. 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?
3. 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.
4. Technology alone can’t quiet the voices in our heads.
When we work with other people, we get all kinds of evidence that supports 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.
Evidence to build trust
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, and teams have done that since the Roman Empire. But we need to be proactive in providing 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.
In remote work, trust is both a vital currency and a fragile entity. While technology serves as our conduit for communication, the responsibility lies with us to proactively provide and seek evidence of trustworthiness within our virtual teams. Trust is not solely a product of past experiences or personal biases; it is a living entity that requires ongoing care and attention. As we navigate the complexities of remote collaboration, remember that it’s not the tools themselves but how we utilize them that will determine the strength of our teams and the preservation of trust. Trust in remote teams can be built and sustained, but it requires dedication, communication, and a commitment to seeking evidence that reinforces the bonds of collaboration.