How to Use Communication to Establish Trust in Remote Teams

When you work with a new team for the first time, especially if your colleagues are located in different cities across the globe, you’ll be sending important information to them without knowing much about them personally. You send project notes, finished work, a few details about your personal life, links to your social networking profiles — maybe even your bank account details. You may never even met these people face-to-face. Even with contracts in place, how is it that it seems like you trust them immediately and start working as soon as possible?

What remote teams actually experience is known as “swift trust“, which happens when you don’t have the time or means to build trust through multiple interactions. Also, you often don’t have prior experience with your colleagues to determine their trustworthiness. You act as if you trust each other from the beginning. While this type of trust cultivates easily, it’s also very fragile. Since all you have are your communication tools — email, phone, instant messaging, video conferencing, etc. — how can you establish and maintain trust using these channels?

Setting the Tone

Your team’s first few messages are crucial to maintaining and developing this “swift trust” into something more sustainable. In a study published in Organization Science, the researchers noted that “The first messages on the team appeared to set the tone for how the team interrelated.” Just as in face-to-face meetings, first impressions count. As much as possible, remote workers should make the effort to make their initial messages positive. You can do this is through expressing encouragement and motivation.

A study published by the Journal of Management Information Systems (JMIS) demonstrated that high trust teams were expressive about their enthusiasm for the project and gave ample encouragement and compliments to their colleagues. The Organization Science study backs this up. In teams with high initial trust, opening messages saying “I’m excited to work with this team” or “Looking forward to working with you all” were common. Teams with low initial trust lacked this enthusiasm.

High trust teams also gave positive motivation, focusing on what their team could accomplish if they performed well. Low trust teams, on the other hand, focused on what they could lose if they didn’t perform well.

Though first impressions are important, establishing a positive tone mid-project can still improve trust. The study included some teams showing low initial trust, but they moved on to high trust as they expressed more enthusiasm later on.

Task-oriented Communication

Typically, there are three types of communication that take place in virtual teams:

  • Social communication. This includes discussions on topics unrelated to the project, such as messages about one’s hobbies, weekend activities and family.
  • Procedure-oriented communication. This type of communication is based on setting rules and processes relevant to the task, including discussions on how often to check email, how to monitor work progress, and what the workflow should be like.
  • Task-oriented communication. When you share your work with the team, request feedback or directly talk about the task at hand, you are engaging in task-oriented (or task-focused) communication.

In the Organization Science study, social exchanges helped facilitate early trust, but this proved to be insufficient in maintaining trust in the long run. Also, while procedure-oriented communication is important, a team must be able to move beyond it to get things done. Over-discussing work procedures and rules may appear productive, but they can be a way to escape responsibility and waste time while waiting for other people to start the work.

Both studies show that to maintain or create trust, your team must have the ability to move quickly from social and procedural communication to task-oriented communication. Even teams low on initial trust were able to develop more trust this way, and were eventually unaffected by negative feedback and non-contributing members. In high trust teams, communication became exclusively task-oriented and there were rarely any social exchanges. Still, members displayed empathy and support when discussing each other’s work.

Making Communication Predictable

One of the studies also emphasized predictability as an essential aspect of trust-building. Regular, predictable communication was more important than the quantity of communication for maintaining trust. In other words, sending messages often isn’t as important as sending them in a regular schedule or pattern. This means sending daily or weekly reports, acknowledging incoming contributions and informing others of your schedule.

Low trust teams often had unpredictable communication and no forewarning of member absences. High trust teams, on the other hand, informed each other of when they’d be available for work and sent each other prompt messages saying that they received and evaluated a member’s latest contribution. In the JMIS study, high trust teams were also more aware of time zone differences and scheduled their work in such a way that downtime was managed as effectively as possible.

With remote teams, we must know how to communicate effectively if we want to build long-term trust in our working relationships. We can do this by increasing our efforts in expressing our enthusiasm at the start of the project, keeping messages in a positive tone, staying focused on the task, and establishing a regular pattern of communication.

How do you encourage trust in your remote teams? What actions or incidents causes you to trust your colleagues less?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Max Klingensmith

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