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Building trust in virtual teams

Colin Hughes, head of the Graduate Business School at the Technological University of Dublin, on how leaders can earn the trust of virtual team members

Team membership

Team membership is no longer restricted to people located in a single workplace. Photograph: iStock


Virtual teams and the liquid workforce are now becoming the norm rather than the exception for organisations around the world. Team membership is no longer restricted to people located in a single workplace. They can be comprised of people working in different offices, from home, on the road, in different locations and can be involve a blend of employees, contractors and casual contributors.

This poses a range of challenges for leaders and managers, not least the ability to form relationships based on trust. “All of the research into industry 4.0 trends show that while digital skills are really important, soft skills are vital,” says head of the Graduate Business School at TU Dublin Colin Hughes.

“It’s not just about team members trusting the leader. It’s about the leader being confident enough to trust team members without seeing them. Trust in members’ self-efficacy definitely comes into it. It’s not about standing over people and watching what they are doing.”

Hughes has been engaged in research into the topic of trust between leaders and members of virtual teams. He looked at three global companies with operations around the world and a number of teams in each organisation. He carried out close on 40 interviews with both leaders and team members on the topic of leader-member trust.

“One of the biggest things to come out of it was that team leaders need to adopt a member-centric leadership approach,” he says.

“Some leaders struggle with this. It’s all about supporting team members both personally and professionally – clearing roadblocks for them if they are struggling to get things done.”

A particular issue with virtual teams is where members are working in a matrix structure which sees them working in a number of different teams simultaneously. Members can be reporting to more than one person at the same time and this can often lead to conflicts.

“A leader needs to be a coach and mentor for people in their team,” says Hughes.

‘Showing they care’

“They should help them with their career and personal development. They also need to be more intentional in showing they care. It can be a case of out of sight, out of mind, when it comes to people who work remotely but the best leaders go out of their way to make a call and communicate with them. They also take the time and trouble to meet them face to face. Those are really high-value meetings which help take the relationship to the next level.”

Virtual leaders also need to have very strong communications skills.

“Communications with team members have to be absolutely clear if you want them to deliver to expectations,” he says.

“Leaders have to be comfortable with a variety of communications tools – Skype, WhatsApp and other messaging tools. Less and less done by email now. They have to show they care by responding to messages promptly.”

Those communications skills are particularly important when it comes to dealing with teams with some members based in the office and others working remotely. “Members at a distance can feel isolated and disadvantaged,” Hughes explains. “Leaders need to make sure they feel involved.”

Communications modes are also relevant. “Some people are very comfortable with conversations over the phone or on video but direct face-to-face conversations take it to another level. It allows for the conversation to move beyond the agenda and is generally more relaxed. Body language is easier to perceive in a face-to-face situation and that is also helpful. Group calls can be incredibly difficult when you have a number of people in the room and others participating remotely – that just reinforces the sense of isolation. Leaders need to address that.”

In creating trust within the team, a leader needs to demonstrate a number of characteristics. “Openness comes up as a huge factor,” says Hughes.

“When people are willing to share positives and negatives and are open to being challenged, it helps earn trust.”

Giving autonomy

Giving autonomy is another. “Micromanagement as a style just doesn’t work in virtual teams,” he adds. “If team members don’t feel trusted, they will find it incredibly difficult to trust. Trust begets trust. Members also need to know the leader has their back. They need to feel supported as a human being as well as an employee. That’s very important in our always-on culture where people have to work in different time zones and may have to travel a lot. Good leaders may tell people to cut down on travel and to balance both their life and their workload. Where they are working in multiple teams in matrix structures, good leaders can help by talking to other leaders to ask them to lessen the workload. Member-centric leaders show they care, have strong communications skills, are available to listen, and support their team members.”

And TU Dublin is helping leaders develop these characteristics.

“We have recently redesigned the leadership development component of our Executive MBA programme to focus on issues such as virtual team leadership and high-trust, high-performance teams along with the application of emerging technologies,” says Hughes.

“The world needs socially responsible and effective leaders who are equipped for the changing demands of business and society.”