Building Virtual Trust and Alignment

Practical tips for leading distributed teams.

The digital revolution allows clever firms to leverage the talents of widely-dispersed virtual teams. But the opportunity creates a riddle: how to get far-flung colleagues to work together?

Leveraging distributed teams effectively is a subtle challenge in our digital age, one that grows as technologies advance and digital natives predominate in the workplace. We need practical guidance to make this work in an environment of constant change.

The challenge is centred on the lack of opportunities for personal interaction in distributed teams, and our resulting reliance on virtual tools for intra-team communication and supervision.

We all recognise that e-mails, Skype, Zoom, WebEx, and similar tools can be fast, efficient and cost-effective, but they tend to rob our communication of nuances like tone of voice, facial expression, and body language.

This loss of nuance and the dearth of personal interaction make it more challenging to establish trust and empathy in distributed teams. The challenge is exacerbated by the cultural and linguistic boundaries — and the potential misunderstandings — that are all too common in such virtual groups.

Recognising this dilemma, here are four steps that will support trust-building and collaboration in your virtual teams:

  • Encourage face-to-face meetings. Use these to establish the virtual relationship whenever possible. This will allow team members to build a foundation of rapport in person before relying on digital communication. If your organisation brings colleagues together to kick off large projects, take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that proper introductions and connections are made between virtual teammates.
  • Connect personally. When opportunities arise — meetings, conferences, development programs that put you in the same location — make the effort to meet virtual teammates in person, even if only for a few minutes. Sharing a coffee or lunch together can lower barriers and solidify relationships.
  • Demonstrate interest. Learn names and how to pronounce them. Inquire about families or interests. Note time zones to be aware of working hours, and take note of holidays. Two examples for those with colleagues in the Middle East: the weekend begins on Friday in Muslim countries, and the rhythm of work changes during Ramadan. Such awareness can personalise a relationship, reduce confusion, and generate empathy and trust with distant colleagues.
  • Model the behaviours for others. It isn’t enough to expect the team to follow these steps: you are a leader and role model, so you set the example. It is important to ‘walk the talk’ in virtual as well as on-site environments.

Turning to alignment and productivity, businesses have gotten quite good at leveraging virtual tools for speed, cost savings, scale, and distributed teams. But this can also make it tricky to confirm understanding and alignment. Details or questions can slip through the cracks and erode the productivity and cohesion of the team.

The upshot is that clear instructions and confirming understanding are even more important for virtual cohorts than for on-site teams. Here are five suggestions to help leaders improve alignment and productivity in geographically-dispersed teams:

  • Ensure that instructions and requests are crystal-clear, both orally and in writing. Bear in mind that team members may not have the same levels of experience or linguistic fluency. Keep things clear and transparent.
  • Check understanding and alignment frequently. This does not imply a lack of trust in your people: you need to do this because of the distances involved and the lack of face-to-face interaction. Check in more often to compensate for the lack of direct supervision and your reliance on virtual tools. This is not micro-management: it is prudent virtual management.
  • Look for indirect ways to confirm understanding. It is rarely enough to simply ask, “Do you understand? Are there any questions? Is this clear?” Team members may be reluctant to ask questions or seek clarification for fear of losing face. Find indirect ways to ensure understanding, such as asking members to paraphrase instructions or outline next steps.
  • Set clear expectations. Don’t assume they will know what you expect. This can be a challenge across cultural and linguistic frontiers, so anticipate this and be clear about your standards and expectations, particularly re deadlines and the quality, quantity, and appearance of the work to be done.
  • Avoid cultural stereotypes. These can damage motivation and productivity: what may seem amusing to some may be hurtful and cause resentment for others. Treat everyone with courtesy and respect and model appropriate behaviour for the team.

In sum, leaders of virtual teams should pay close attention to questions of trust and collaboration, and confirm understanding, alignment, and expectations frequently.