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How to Build Trust and Effectively Lead Virtual Teams

Working virtually certainly has its perks. There’s no commute! Your lunch is just the short walk to the refrigerator away! You don’t have to wear pants! That said, working remotely can have its pitfalls when it comes to keeping your project on track and your team members working together as a cohesive unit. There are fewer social cues, a higher risk for role and responsibility ambiguity, an increased chance of conflict, and more challenges in the area of trust building.

As every project manager knows, having trust amongst project team members and leadership is crucial for running a successful project. With many of us working remotely now, some for the first time, it’s more important than ever for project managers to create an environment of communication and collaboration, as well as a sense of “we’re all in this together.” While it can be hard work, it is even harder to carry on with a project where there’s no trust. Research shows that trust amongst team members and trust in leadership leads to higher performance and better results. Doing this from a distance is easier said than done. How does one best build this ever-important trust when the only face-to-face time you have is on Zoom? Here are six tips on how to build trust and effectively lead virtual teams.

 

Get Off on the Right Foot

Whether you’re starting a project remotely or you’ve found yourselves setting up home offices due to a pandemic, it’s important to set the tone for how your virtual team will function early-on. Define a clear purpose which aligns with your project goals, and ensure that each individual understands their responsibilities and tasks. A well-articulated mission and defined goalposts (deadlines and/or milestones set up throughout the life of your project) are crucial for success. Being clear about your expectations from the start brings your team together, helps everyone work towards a shared goal or goals, and becomes the connection you all share when you are not together in a physical space. Establish expectations and preferred communication methods from the start and work to stay consistent.

 

Encourage Open Communication

As the project manager, you set the tone for what is expected in regards to communication. Let your team members know that open and honest communication is encouraged, and “walk the walk.” Model positive communication behaviors. Implement a communication plan for your team interactions. This may mean that you hold weekly team check-ins. Ensure you are accessible for any concerns via email, telephone, and messaging tools such as Microsoft Teams, and be as responsive as possible. Encourage your team to upload photos and profiles of themselves onto your messaging platform, so team members can become acquainted and familiar with one another’s faces, even if not together in person. Encourage spontaneous and informal interactions when possible. Though many are Zoom-fatigued, holding a social meeting on Friday afternoon to decompress together can go a long way in building team rapport.

 

Empowerment is Important

There is no such thing as “micro-managing” when your team is working virtually, so now is the time to empower your team and trust them to do what needs to be done. Though trust is typically earned, as a project manager leading a virtual team, you must extend some level of autonomy to your team members. Demonstrate that you trust in their skills, knowledge, and abilities to get their jobs done. Empower them to make and act on decisions when possible and appropriate. Give positive feedback as often as possible, and express your gratitude to all individuals and the team as a whole when you meet. An empowered employee is more likely to feel committed to their job and the project.

 

Be a Stickler for Process

Every good project requires extensive planning before the real work begins. Though planning can be time-consuming, it is imperative to build a solid foundation in order to keep your virtual team working smoothly. Without a plan, productivity can take a nosedive and your project can get derailed. Some pointers:

  • Develop processes, rules, and step-by-step procedure guidelines. Hold team members—and yourself—accountable to the best practices you’ve established.
  • Detail out individual responsibilities and tasks, as well as deadlines, and communicate them clearly (and often!) to avoid any confusion about roles, responsibilities, or expectations.
  • Use resources such as shared calendars, collaboration tools, naming conventions for files, etc. Make sure everyone works on files “in the cloud” to avoid version control issues with those files team members are collaborating on.
  • Reassess frequently, and realign when you need to! Just because a process has been defined ahead of time doesn’t mean it will run smoothly, so always stay flexible to changing things as the project moves along. Learn what works best for your team and the project.

 

Familiarize Yourself with the Trust Factors of Competence, Integrity, and Benevolence

Research shows that people trust each other based on three factors: competence, integrity, and benevolence.

  • Competence: During team meetings, give everyone the opportunity to speak about and present their current tasks to the group. Let them “show and tell” what they’re doing, explain their processes, and update the team on the outcome of their work. This will, not only empower your team, but allow others to see their colleagues contributions to the project and understand how it all ties in together.
  • Integrity: Document all team tasks and interactions whenever possible. By thoroughly documenting communication and progress, it will be easier to see what has been done, who has done it, and when—at any time. This builds integrity, as it helps team members meet their deadlines, keep their promises to their colleagues, and comply with the expectations of the leadership and the project as a whole.
  • Benevolence: Believe in the good intentions of everyone until proven otherwise. Thank your team members when they go the extra mile or when they’ve reached a personal deadline. Put forth as much effort as you can to acknowledge when your team is doing a good job. By setting a tone of kindness, you’ll be able to effectively encourage everyone to help each other when needed. Invest your energy into extending your appreciation for everyone—it will pay in dividends!

 

Establish a “Trust Maintenance” Routine

If your project is sliding off the rails or you aren’t sure if your team is doing what they need to be doing, then it’s time to get serious about setting frequent team meetings.  You may even increase the frequency of 1:1 meetings with each individual who reports to you. Since you can’t see your team members physically, it’s important to do frequent and friendly “check ins” to see how everyone is doing. And, not just on the project! Remember, this may be the first experience working virtually for many. Ask how they are doing working from home, encourage them to take time off when needed, and ask if there is anything you can do to support them in doing their best job. An extended hand of concern from a PM can go a long way in building trust and a strong rapport. Be as transparent and trustworthy as possible and communicate that you expect the same in return. Use dashboards and Microsoft Teams to frequently communicate and exchange information with others, and make sure everyone on the team is on the same page about frequent interactions with one another.

 

Conclusion

One of the greatest threats to a virtual team is a breakdown in trust amongst team members and with leadership. To avoid this, it’s your job as project manager to establish pillars of trust: consistency, dependability, mutuality, and openness.

Building a team culture centered on trust and a shared purpose is certainly challenging. However, when you focus on communicating the purpose of the project, shared goals, team empowerment, communication, and accountability as the cultural threads that tie all of you together, you’ll all be working as a cohesive unit in no time.

 

Lindsay Curtis
Written by Lindsay Curtis

Lindsay Curtis writes about communications, education, healthcare research, and parenting. She has extensive experience as a Project Manager, primarily in the healthcare and higher education sectors. A writer by day and a reader by night, she currently works as a Communications Officer for the University of Toronto. She also provides freelance copywriting and social media strategy services for businesses of all sizes. Learn more about Lindsay at www.curtiscommunications.org.

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