Trust between members of a virtual team emerged as one of the strongest themes in my research and a constant challenge for virtual teams of all sizes. It is of particular concern in newly formed teams and situations where people are finding themselves in unusual situations, such as suddenly working from home after a career of co-location as is happening increasingly as organisations navigate the COVID 19 situation.
Trust was seen in virtual teams, as in the rest of life, as slow to build, easy to maintain with the appropriate behaviors on all sides yet so easy to break through even the simplest and seemingly innocent actions. It is a difficult and challenging matter in a more traditional virtual team and in this new world of work from home, the risks to trust between personnel is probably even greater.
Even a seemingly innocent email that is very blunt and out of context can begin to erode a trusting relationship, making the recipient begin to feel defensive and to withdraw their level of commitment, so, as an opening comment, be careful how you communicate!
Forms of trust
Trust is generally formed in a working situation through one of three mechanisms:
- Transactional trust – This is the most common in most workplaces. The trust is developed over time based on performance of both parties. The person delivering the work shows that they can be trusted to deliver the work by delivering on time, to the anticipated quality and with no surprises, the person receiving the work establishes their side of the trust relationship by working in a predictable manner, not surprising the person doing the work and allowing them to work without excess supervision.
- Relational trust – This is a less common way of forming trust though still applicable in the environment where companies are suddenly fragmenting their workforce into a work from home regime. In relational trust the trust is established through the enjoyment of working with colleagues. In this situation personnel develop a trusting bond with people they enjoy working with and through this are more inclined to trust the work performed, the person performing the work and the person for whom the work is being performed.
- Group trust – In group trust, team members are inclined to trust one another because of common backgrounds, experiences or relationships. It is particularly common in cultures where different social groups feel a strong sense of internal cohesion. This form of trust may actually be quite important in organisations suddenly moving from co-located to work from home as the common experiences being faced, such as the sense of being in this situation together, may lead to a greater feeling of social cohesion.
Each of these three forms of trust will impact an organisations workforce when they find themselves working from home differently, transactional work must still be maintained and delivered on time without the emergence of unnecessary levels of micromanagement, relationships must be maintained or if possible strengthened, this can be challenging when physically separated but, with the social media and communications tools now available (see my first post in this series), it is relatively easy to at least stay in touch, and a sense of group cohesion emerging from everyone being in this situation together and all trying to make the most of what they have may strengthen that mechanism.
Maintaining trust when working from home
So how does all this discussion of trust relate to a work from home scenario. Essentially, trust is the glue that will hold a team together as well as the lubricant to getting work done productively. In a traditional co-located working environment it is easy to perform the rituals and processes that allow team members to maintain their mutual trust. Managers can see that their personnel are at work and undertaking their tasks, they can casually pass by desks and see things happening and they will develop a sense of progress without even needing to explicitly inquire. Similarly the workforce can see what their colleagues are doing without specifically inquiring, they can observe their managers behavior to understand the general mood in the office and organisation and they can easily see if they need to either adjust their own work or work with others to ensure alignment.
Once a team is physically broken up into a work from home situation, all or practically all of the social interaction is broken up. Managers cant see what their reports are doing and it is more difficult to control and coordinate tasks, similarly the workforce can’t easily coordinate their work nor can they feel like they are part of a common endeavour as easily as when they are co-located.
This fragmentation can lead to a number of different reactions. Some will embrace the new situation and work hard to find different ways to maintain the same bonds as co-located working affords, others will react to the isolation by becoming either very insular and close in or start to become micromanagers.
Micromanagement in work from home teams
In a co-located office situation micromanagement is rarely a long term productive undertaking. For those being managed they very quickly begin to loose any trust in the organisation, feeling that everything they do is being over examined. The over control quickly suffocates any wish to do more than the basic tasks required. From the managers side, while micromanagement can fill a sense of unease that personnel may not be doing exactly as required, it is a very tiring and high burden to take on. Micromanagement may fill a short term need if a new task is being undertaken, there is a particular need to take additional vigilance over a particular task or a staff member is believed to be under performing, but the latter of these, the management of underperforming staff, is how many staff will perceive it even if it is not aimed at them.
The way forward
So, just how should a new “work from home” team build and maintain a trusting environment?
Fundamentally, this again comes back to something I discussed in part 1, that is to assume that everyone is working to the best of their ability in the new, and for many confronting environment associated with self isolation, working from home, uncertainty and fear over future security. By assuming that colleagues are working on the tasks they should, that you yourself are endeavoring to deliver as expected and, from the perspective of the organisational management and leadership, to believe that your teams are working as best they can is the best position to start.
To support this primary position of faith in your colleagues, it is also critical that everyone maintains an open environment of communication. This should include frequent sharing of task status, both up and down through the command chain as well as horizontally between co workers. Additionally, everyone needs to keep sharing other news and observations, ensure that their colleagues know if their personal situation has changed, if they are having any technical or personal problems that may impact both their own ability to deliver and the tasks themselves, and, everyone needs to participate fully in all of their interactions.