When we ask clients to name the toughest challenge associated with leading virtual teams, there is one answer that always pops to the top of the list: Building trust. Or in some cases, it’s re-building trust.
Building trust is hard for any team, but it is especially hard for virtual teams, whose members have few opportunities to interact personally. Virtual teams often evolve around projects, with people coming together and drifting away during different phases. When teams span different cultures, misunderstandings can crop up more frequently with virtual teams, and are much harder to detect, and can be awkward to address. Plus, virtual teams rarely allocate special time for relationship-building. So when times are tough, it’s almost impossible to drop everything for the kind of heart-to-heart talks that can repair relationships.
- Set the tone as the team leader. The way a team leader interacts with team members on phone calls and in virtual meetings sets the tone for the whole team. This includes tone of voice as well as the warmth with which we say hello. Smiling while talking on the phone can have an impact on others, even if they can’t see you. Try it and observe how your tone and tenor changes. Being rested and well prepared for team meetings will result in a positive, calm demeanor and a good demonstration of active listening — all of which will have a lasting positive impact on your team.
- Use a team kick-off as a time to create social capital, and build from there. Unlike co-located teams that can bond during face-to-face kick-off events, virtual teams also need these “getting-to-know-you” sessions. Dedicating an hour-long virtual meeting for a relaxed conversation about family, interests, professional background and aspirations, for example, can pay big dividends later on. Doing this early on gives members more reasons to keep in touch with colleagues, either 1:1 or as a team. Conversations do not, and should not, be all business, all the time.
- Invite people to reveal a piece of themselves at every opportunity. Some people dislike “chatting” on team calls, especially when time is of the essence. Others feel they can’t really trust another without knowing something about the real person behind the voice. Make it easy and fast for people to reveal a little bit of information about themselves. For example, you can ask people to answer a quick (non-invasive) personal question as they log in and/or dial in, such as “What is the title of the last book you’ve read? or “Describe what you like best about winter.” Little by little, people will develop a deeper sense of the whole person, enabling them to forge connections they may otherwise never have been able to make.
- Create a way for team members to have “face time.” Even when you can’t bring the team together in one room, you can help make them feel like they’re together by creating a simple team photo. Ask team members to share a digital photo of themselves, whether a candid shot, family portrait, professional head shot — anything is fine. Then you can cut and paste the images together to create a team photo, perhaps sitting around an imaginary conference table ready for your next virtual meeting. Add everyone’s names to their photos and share the collage with the whole team. This simple low-tech tool is a very effective way to keep team members in the mind’s eye during virtual meetings and online conversations.
- Ask everyone to create a “fun fact sheet.” Create a template that team members can easily populate with information that would be both useful to know (such as preferred ways to be contacted, languages spoken, Myers-Briggs or DiSC profile, etc.) and fun to discover (such as hobbies, favorite vacation spots, family make-up, unusual talents, etc.) People can email their fact sheets to others or, better yet, they can post them in a shared location that is accessible only to team members. Make sure to draw on this information during team calls. (E.g., “Jeff, I’ll bet you’re looking forward to ski season” or “Maria, maybe you can give Juan some local suggestions for his visit to Paris next month.”) Bonus: New team members will have an easy way to “meet” everyone on the team right out of the starting gate.
- Create a space and time where team members can share lessons learned with others. This sharing can take place in an online conference area, in a wiki or blog, or during team calls. Encourage people to recount lessons that are reflective and revealing, beyond those related to the task at hand. For example, you might ask someone who has recently returned from a client site what they’d do differently next time, and why. Or you can ask each person to call out a quick highlight of the week just ended, or the greatest challenge they face in the week ahead (and why). This can take as little as 5-10 minutes on a team call, depending on the number of team members or the nature of the sharing. Alternately, you can call on a couple of different team members each week.
- Make everyone a star! It’s easy for practically anyone to make and share videos. Ask team members to make videos of themselves in their own work environment (or in their favorite setting) to share with others — maybe during a call, by posting online, attaching in an email, or embedding into a blog. This way, people can get a better feel for each other’s environment without having to travel. Consider staging a “best picture” contest for the funniest clip, best acting, most beautiful scenery, cleanest offices, etc.
- Be a connector for the team. Communications and connections don’t happen by chance with virtual teams as they often do with co-located teams who share a corridor, a water cooler or a cafeteria. Team leaders need to connect frequently with members themselves, whether 1:1 or in small groups, and create opportunities and suggestions for members to connect with each other. This is best done by phone and/or video conference, avoiding an over-reliance on email. The “connectivity function” is especially important when a new team is forming or new members are coming on board. It is also important for team leaders to connect with all team members, to maintain a level playing field and avoid being seen as playing favorites. Eventually, team members will be spurred on to connect with each other on their own volition.
- Give people tangible reasons to make connections on their own. It’s unlikely that a team of 15 or 20 members can build meaningful relationships when conversations are restricted to team calls and email. Assign tasks to team members who need to build trust most urgently. Suggest (or require) that they set aside needed time for important conversations, whether to surface issues, solve problems, brainstorm ideas or make decisions. During your 1:1 sessions with team members, you can learn more about how these sessions are going.
- Talk about trust early on. It can be awkward to discuss trust right up front. (Most teams wait for a team breakdown to bring it up, when it can be way too late.) With a virtual team, it’s hard to discern when, how or why trust has been breached. That’s precisely why it’s so important to put it on the table at the outset. Encourage people to discuss behavior that tends to build, and break, trust. Guide the team in creating norms that help cultivate trust and minimize opportunities to cause friction. For example, how will team members ask for help or admit when they’re behind? What’s the best way to deal with frustrations and misunderstandings? Such norms can create guidelines for new members and serve as a checkpoint for all members, should problems arise.
We all know someone we didn’t warm up to at first, but as we conversed in the cafeteria, or on a business trip or in the gym, we developed a close relationship. That personal connection allows us to discover and connect with the full human being. With virtual teams, we have to deliberately create time for the kind of meaningful encounters that lead to trusting relationships. While this takes no small amount of ingenuity, commitment and careful planning, the paybacks in happier, more engaged and productive teams are enormous.