How to Foster Collaboration and Trust in Remote Teams
In the midst of a global pandemic, we’re in a moment of transparency. Every workplace action, from large-scale layoffs to instituting policies to workers’ safety, is seen and scrutinized by the public — and internally. Trust has never been more essential to healthy work processes. And the large-scale shift to remote work amplifies the need for trust.
But simply shifting your in-person processes to a digital platform does little to foster the trust needed to collaborate effectively in a distributed work environment. Cultivating trust to support collaboration requires deliberate and well-thought-out process changes. “If you’re not very intentional about it, you can lose people,” cautions Dana Brownlee, president at Professionalism Matters, Forbes contributor and author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up. Building and sustaining trust between all members of your team is a daily imperative.
But where do you start? “It really begins with raised awareness of trust as the precursor for fostering collaboration,” says Michelle Reina who, with her husband Dennis Reina, co-founded Reina Trust Building and co-authored Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace. “Collaboration is an outgrowth of high levels of trust.”
Trust and collaboration are foundational elements of a healthy distributed workplace. Here’s how to cultivate trust and develop patterns of healthy collaboration in your remote teams.
Define Trust in Action
Trust is typically relegated to a held value or buried deep somewhere in a competency model. But this doesn’t tell you what trust looks like in the workplace. “What really brings trust to life is how we show up and behave,” says Michelle Reina. Take the abstract concept from your values statement and make it concrete. Provide behaviors as part of a collaboration framework, such as the Reina’s three-dimensions model. For example, seeking out input from a colleague or offering constructive feedback to a team member are behaviors that build trust and facilitate collaboration. This kind of model helps you put your intention to build trust into actual practice.
Breaking trust down into actual behaviors gives leaders a direction and focus for tangible ways to build trust at work, Michelle Reina says. Connecting trust to tangible behaviors is even more critical in a remote work environment, when employees no longer see each other. “As the workforce is more and more distributed and workers feel more isolated from one another, behaviors show them how to reach out and build trust and collaboration,” Michelle Reina says.
Equip your team with the vocabulary to discuss trust and set standards. “It offers reference points to connect with one another,” Dennis Reina points out. “Human connection — now more than ever — is wanted and needed.”
Encourage teams and leaders to consider how their actions affect overall trust levels. “Trust is built and sustained when people are intentional in their thoughts, attitudes, outlooks and behaviors,” Michelle Reina says. “It requires deliberate focus on an ongoing basis.” How does logging in late on the day a project is due affect the rest of the team, for example? Setting clear expectations around behaviors such as meeting deadlines, logging in and being available — and holding people accountable for meeting those expectations — helps ensure that team members can trust each other to collaborate effectively.
Coding actions in this way increases their impact. “Trust of character is the baseline starting point of trust and collaboration in workplace relationships,” Michelle Reina says. “It’s an anchor point when everything else is up in the air.”
Build Social Capital Among Team Members
Building trust in a remote work environment should begin with this foundational paradigm: Know your team members, like your team members, trust your team members. “It’s hard to trust a person you don’t like, and it’s hard to like a person you don’t know,” Brownlee says. “It all starts with relationship building.” If your team already knows each other really well, acclimating to remote work could be easier. But if you’re trying to break down silos that existed before moving to remote work or to onboard a new worker, then building social capital is a vital first step.
“In a remote team, collaboration and trust start at an individual level,” says Erin Miller, vice president of people at PrecisionHawk. “When you have that baseline of trust and respect, you’ll approach any conflicts with more care and empathy.” Relationships between members dictate whether the team can meet its full potential. When the basis is solid, team members can communicate more effectively and trust that each step or project will be executed correctly and on time.
But when your team isn’t physically together, you have to go the extra mile to foster genuine relationships. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture — just set aside a few minutes in your daily schedule. “The best way to build relationships is in small doses,” Brownlee says. When introducing team members on a Zoom call, for example, have them share an actual story or fact about themselves that may have shaped who they are today, such as their first job. “Something as simple as that can make connections and break down hierarchies,” she continues. The VP of the company may have started out as a server or grocery store bagger, for example.
Donut is a great tool for building trusting relationships in remote work. It can be integrated through Slack, and automatically pairs people across your organization based on their schedule and availability. This helps break down silos and expose team members to employees in other departments.
Engender Trust Between Teams and Leaders
In remote work, direct managers and team leaders are the backbone of successful collaboration. Trust between leaders and team members is essential and has to go both ways. Each team needs psychological safety in order to function optimally. “The onus is on leaders to create that psychological safety,” Miller says.
“It’s important for employees to speak up and make their needs known,” Brownlee. This is fundamental for good collaboration. On a very basic level, this begins with ensuring team members have all of the tools and technology they need to participate and be reliable. But trust should run much deeper, too. For example, your BIPOC workers are probably affected by news of police shooting and civil unrest, but in a remote work environment you may not notice. You need to trust that they’ll take time off if they need it. And at the same time, they need to trust that they won’t be penalized for taking time off or they won’t take advantage of it. Trust and collaboration between managers and team members can help ensure that employees’ needs are met, allowing them to do their jobs successfully.
Micromanaging is a common trust trap. It signals that leaders don’t trust employees to perform their tasks appropriately, which severely erodes trust. Leaders who trust their team members perform a more supportive role: They set team goals, and then ensure that each member has the tools and resources they need to reach them.
But as the Reinas point out, trust-building is a recursive process that requires back-and-forth. Proactively ask for anonymous feedback. Tools like Mentimeter allow you to collect anonymous feedback in real-time. This allows team members to respond to polls and even make suggestions that colleagues can upvote if they agree. “People have an opportunity to rally behind ideas they weren’t comfortable saying themselves,” Brownlee says. “Management gets a much more realistic view of what’s going on or what employee challenges are.” Tools like this are both powerful and efficient.
Once trust has been built into relationships and behaviors, intentional processes can support collaboration. “One of the behaviors that builds trust of character is establishing boundaries,” Michelle Reina says. “This creates an environment of safety where people can be open and honest.” Boundaries don’t close people off: They provide a concrete starting point for deeper connection.
Collaborate on Ground Rules and Guidelines
The first step in group collaboration should be deciding your new remote work processes. Working remotely represents a shift from in-person work, and employees should have a say in determining the most effective processes for them. “You can’t assume that you’ll be able to carry on business as usual,” Brownlee says. “How you worked in the office may not work as well when working from home.” For example, just relying on hours worked isn’t always reliable for remote work. You may need to switch gears to more effective project management techniques instead. “Focus on productivity,” Miller says, “not hours worked.”
Whatever methods, guidelines or processes you put in practice, make sure they are well-thought-out and intentional, Brownlee says. “Get the group together to come up with a set of ground rules,” she suggests. When teams work together to create rules, the accountability for following them is stronger. And when team-laid ground rules aren’t being followed, you can reopen conversations and reassess the team’s needs.
“How clear and explicit are your expectations, particularly now that the landscape is changing daily?” asks Dennis Reina. Establish expectations for what team members can expect from you and each other. These should be constructed with the intention of supporting both employees and the business.
“Policies and processes help anchor behavior,” Michelle Reina says. “What do we each need, and how can policies and processes support those needs?” With most schools likely remaining closed in the fall, for example, employees with children may not have access to childcare. These employees may require a more flexible schedule to allow for child care duties. Providing clarity around these boundaries is a starting point for developing concrete expectations.
Developing expectations for remote communication is especially important. “You miss body language and unspoken cues,” Miller says. “In remote work, you’re relying on verbal communication.” Ask team members to tell you what they heard, Miller suggests, to ensure that your meaning wasn’t diluted or misinterpreted. The better you know someone, the more effective your team members’ communication will be.
Finding everyone’s preferred communication mode is a great starting point for developing team guidelines. This helps you learn everyone’s favorite method of communication and their pet peeves that erode trust and collaboration. Asynchronous communication may be more effective for remote teams. “We want team members to work the hours that are best for them,” Miller says. “We’d rather them focus on productivity then on response time.” It may be difficult for workers with children, for example, to find uninterrupted time to focus on work. When they do, it’s better for them to focus on being productive over responding to a non-emergency email. Set flexible guidelines for when to expect responses from remote team members. Priority levels may differ by team and function. Empower teams to develop their own guidelines and expectations for communication.
Collaboration is critical for innovation and success. And our current digital workforce disruptions brought on the sudden widespread shift to remote work will only increase the importance of collaborative work.
But ineffective teamwork drains productivity and morale for employees. Employers that invest in creating a strong collaborative remote culture at their company will have a competitive advantage over the ones that don’t work to foster collaboration and trust in their remote employees.