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How To Develop Trust Within A Remote Team Through Constant Communication

Retrium Team

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me (and my remote team). 🎶

Turns out, it means quite a lot. 

The average American worker spends about 90,000 hours working in their lifetime, meaning we spend more time interacting with coworkers than our own friends and family. You invest time in developing trust and respect with your loved ones, so why not put the same amount of energy towards fostering it with your coworkers? 

Teams that are co-located are fortunate enough to enjoy in-person interactions that help boost team bonding and trust. Remote teams, on the other hand, must work extra hard to develop those connections. 

Discover how to develop trust within a remote team and learn how prioritizing this, as well as your retrospectives, can result in strong team collaboration and communication.

Why Trust Is A Big Deal For Remote Teams

There are two kinds of trust, as defined by researchers in social psychology: cognitive and affective. 

Cognitive trust takes place in your head and is based on the confidence you feel in another’s ability, while affective trust comes from the heart, with feelings of empathy and emotional closeness.  Affective trust is much harder to come by in a remote setting due to the lack of personal interaction, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. In this case, distributed teams must work harder and approach their trust-challenge in a different way.

When it comes to establishing boundaries and having trust in a shared office setting, most of the work and relationship-building is done almost by coincidence by the water cooler, over lunch, or at an office happy hour. These small interactions add up over time and help people to better understand one another, create friendships, and, by default, build trust. 

In a remote setting, most interactions are done via email, group chat, or through a video call, all of which can be impersonal and need to be more intentional to have the same effect as in-person interactions.

So, how do you foster and maintain meaningful connections and trust when your team is distributed around the country or even the globe? 

The answer is constant communication

In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, "studies have shown that trust can indeed be actively accelerated and maintained on virtual teams even when they have to be assembled on the fly with employees scattered across the globe." 

Even if those small connections can’t happen organically in the elevator, they can be scheduled as a call or video chat. Be it a kick-off meeting to establish a collaborative team environment, or a weekly call used to connect on a personal and professional level, constant communication is the first step to building trust. 

The utilization of workplace chat apps, such as Slack, is another way to ensure constant communication while encouraging the usual work-place banter. Both professional and “fun” channels can be set up within the one Slack account to differentiate a time and place for non-work related, more random chats. 

By creating a place for remote employees to go to for quick questions, to share interesting articles, or even to simply send memes of adorable baby animals, team members can develop a larger sense of effective trust and strong communication.  

Better And More Freeform Communication Could Be The Answer To Your Team’s Trust Issues

There are three main ways to set up and keep a remote workplace based on trust, respect, and boundaries.

  1. Identify a Remote Team Leader

Mark Strassman, SVP and GM of Unified Communications and Collaboration at LogMeIn, suggests identifying a “remote workforce leader” who can define and acknowledge the remote workforce culture, team building events, meeting protocols, and collaboration tools. 

The “remote leader” will ensure all team members receive the same on-boarding training, thus establishing and adhering to boundaries early on. 

This can include something as simple as respecting time zones when it comes to messages or meeting times, and ensuring there is predictable communication from the start. Let’s be honest, nobody wants to get email notifications at 2am. Unpredictable communication patterns between virtual teams lead to “swift” trust or temporary trust that fades over time due to no real relationship being established.

The remote team leader can also be the designated person who keeps a pulse-check on morale and communication levels. Is the ‘Kudos’ channel in Slack a bit quieter than normal? 

The remote leader would take this as an opportunity to give kudos to a team member and hopefully spark inspiration for others to do the same. 

  1. Communicate With Intention

If your team wants to make it through the “swift” trust phase, a deeper connection needs to be created. Informational tidbits that share fun and interesting facts about each team member help others to relate on a more personal level and leads to a more naturally flowing conversation. 

Since conversations within remote teams are often scheduled via meetings, it’s important to allot some extra time to allow for natural small talk and casual conversation. In other words, communicate with intention, but leave room for freeform discussions..

Additionally, personality tests such as 16Personalities share in-depth looks at the way life is viewed from the eyes of 16 different types of people in four different categories. Whether you turn out to be an analyst, a diplomat, a sentinel, or an explorer, this test provides a level of understanding and compassion towards team members after reading each other’s results.

  1. Promote a Culture of Transparency 

Mark Kilby, an expert on distributed agile, recently gave insight into how distributed teams can better be supported by building customized workspaces during the first Retrium Expert Series webinar. His recommendation when faced with a challenge in the Agile world is to go back to the basics with principles such as assuming good intentions and creating transparency. 

Successfully creating a culture of transparency in a remote work environment begins with two types of accessibility

The first is the accessibility of information and the second is the accessibility of people. From written policies, historical data, and project details, to project blueprints, all employees should have access to the same information. This comes about through regular meetings, places to touch base, instant video chat access when needed, and shared cell phone numbers. Accessibility, in both forms, provides a sense of trust while streamlining information, ensuring transparency.   

The Symbiotic Relationship Between Trust and Retrospectives

The key to any strong relationship, be it professional or personal, is trust. 

Without trust, relationships are inauthentic by default — and when it comes to a successful retrospective, authenticity is everything. A lack of trust also leads to a lack of psychological safety, something that can make or break a retrospective. The definition of psychological safety, as defined by Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School Professor who coined the term,  is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” A unanimous feeling of psychological safety will lead to unparalleled improvement, since it allows for truly honest feedback.

Brandon Smith, “The Workplace Therapist,” shares the formula: (authenticity + vulnerability) x credibility = trust.

He stresses that without one, you cannot have the other and states that leaders who communicate openly and create a safe space for others to do the same are more likely to fulfill this formula and achieve trust. 

Just as trust affects retrospectives, retrospectives affect trust. A well-facilitated retrospective is a powerful tool to encourage honest, engaging conversation and bring a group closer together. A discussion in which people find themselves vulnerable and willing to open up naturally unifies team members, creating a tighter group. 

Trust is a powerful tool in retrospectives and, more importantly, in the workplace. When that workplace is remote, the need to build a strong sense of trust is amplified and the way in which it is built should be more thoughtful. To build trust takes time, patience, and the understanding that there are no shortcuts. 

The outcome of a workplace with high levels of trust however, is a solid team morale and even more solid outcomes.

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