How to Build Trust and Engagement with Virtual Teams

Mercy Harper's picture

Virtual teams have become the new normal. But with so many organizations currently engaged in digital transformations, the virtual teams of tomorrow are going to be different from those of today. The transition to a more digital workplace will bring new tools, new priorities, and new ways of working that are certain to impact how organizations approach virtual teaming. To learn more about what to expect, I spoke with APQC’s Lauren Trees, principal research lead for knowledge management, and Cindy Hubert, executive director of client solutions.

Mercy Harper: What will the future of virtual teams look like?

Cindy Hubert: We’ve had almost a decade of virtual teams, and I don’t think it’s going to change dramatically in terms of how people interact. People have learned to adapt to having different hours that extend beyond the 8-to-5 work day to accommodate colleagues working in different locations. Teams will take on even more of that flexibility.

What I do think may change, though, is how a virtual team needs to structure itself to get work done.  There will be more movement of people in and out of teams to adapt to the situation – whether it is solving a problem or innovating around a deliverable – a virtual team should be able to pull in people with expertise needed.  You also may have people exiting teams to go to other work.    And, if you haven’t captured what they know or what you might need them for, you’re going to have to go find them again. That’s a complexity that has to be added on to the virtual workplace—you can’t just go find them as you would in a brick and mortar building.

Lauren Trees: You also have to be comfortable with people moving in and out of your sphere of influence pretty rapidly. You have to be comfortable with teams forming and re-forming. You’re not going to have a team of five or ten people that you work with consistently. You’re going to have different people that you work with on different projects, and you have to be comfortable with those more fluid relationships.

Cindy: Virtual teams don’t always take the time to do the “forming, storming, and norming” that we used to do. In the future, we’ve got to spend time bringing teams together, getting them chartered, and getting them to be comfortable. There’s some thought out there now that you don’t want people to get personal, to know each other’s birthdays and such. I disagree with that.

The pendulum has swung back. A decade ago, organizations were very informal in the ways they let people network and share. Then, we came back to a very business-focused approach. And I think that broke down some of the social fabric that runs through an organization.

Lauren: We’ve seen that in our recent research. Community of practice programs that had forced everyone to be very business-focused and said, “no, we’re not going to have groups that talk about running or cooking or things like that” have started adding those things back in. They’ve realized that personal and informal collaboration brings people into the tools, familiarizes them with the technology, and introduces them to the concept of community and virtual teaming. Basically, it helps people make the transition from a consumer social media environment, which most people are used to by now, to an enterprise social environment that people aren’t necessarily as comfortable with.

There are a lot of things—like relationship building and expectation setting—that happen naturally in a face-to-face team, and that you need to be more deliberate about in a virtual environment. In a virtual team, you have to be a lot more structured and intentional about setting expectations and rules of engagement.

Mercy: What kind of environment breeds trust and engagement in virtual relationships?

Cindy: The environment is so important for virtual teams. You have to be deliberate in understanding the behaviors of the workspace. With support from an Advanced Working Group in knowledge management, APQC identified six behaviors that are essential to success:

  1. Accessibility: being easy to approach, reach, speak with, and collaborate with.
  2. Accountability: being answerable for the accuracy of one’s knowledge.
  3. Agility: being comfortable and willing to adapt to new tools, methods, and environments.
  4. Reciprocity: being willing to share across boundaries and collaborate.
  5. Reliability: being dependable in terms of judgement, character, and performance.
  6. Transparency: being open about information and having confidence in competence.

A lot of this comes down to trusted relationships. Research shows that trust is the global cornerstone of what people value at work. But trust is an outcome. You don’t just walk in and say, “Trust is going to be one of our values.” You have to build trust.

Reciprocity and transparency are essential elements of building trust. These behaviors are important for any team, but there’s a little twist in the virtual environment. Are you showing up on time for video conference meetings? Are you turning your camera on? Are you openly sharing the status of your deliverables? Virtual team members really have to think about their reputation as a team member and what they want to be known for.

Lauren: As we’ve seen in consumer social media, elements of the social contract don’t always translate in the virtual sphere. Some of those boundaries break down. As an organization bringing virtual into the workplace, you have to be explicit about what you expect from people—even if it’s the same things you expected in a brick and mortar environment. You have to re-state and be very deliberate about communicating expectations.

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