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How To Build Trust in Virtual Teams

In a virtual team, coworkers don’t see each other in the office on a daily basis. Some colleagues have never even met in real life.

They are missing out on the water cooler talk and spontaneous encounters in the hallway.

In this article I will tell you how to build trust in a virtual team, even from a distance.

The importance of trust

To trust someone means that you have a firm belief in the reliability and truth of that person.

It also means that people are willing to be vulnerable with each other because they expect the other to behave positively towards them.

If you do it the right way, building trust has several positive effects on your team:

  • Improved collaboration
  • Knowledge sharing
  • A higher commitment of team members
  • Increased team cohesion
how to build trust virtual team

Overall you can say that trust is vital to team performance.

The opposite is also true. When we distrust co-workers, we might think they are not reliable. And therefore we don’t collaborate in the way we could.

Co-workers start to focus on their personal interests and might not be willing to share information and knowledge, which in the end will hurt team results.

In organizations, two types of trust can be distinguished.

1. Trust with the head - Cognitive trust

Cognitive trust is based on how you judge someone’s competence and reliability.

This type of trust is also called ‘trust with the head’ and greatly depends on what someone is showing in his work.

"Can the other be trusted to do what he says he will do?"

"Will he deliver in time?"

"Will it be of sufficient quality?"

building cognitive trust virtual team

The stronger you believe the answer is ‘yes’, the stronger the cognitive trust.  

This type of trust is based on an economic exchange (reciprocity): “if you do something for me, I will do something for you”.

Would you like to learn more about how to build strong relationships in a virtual team?

Download the free guide:
'3 fun & easy ways to build strong relationships in a remote team'.

This is how you build cognitive trust within your virtual team

Cognitive trust is all about being accountable and showing that you do what you say you will do.

  • Therefore it is important to follow through on commitments and deliver before the promised deadline.
  • Be realistic about what you can do in a certain time. If, for some reason, that is not possible, be sure to tell your coworkers about the delay.  
  • Always make sure you show up for meetings on time and be prepared.
  • Furthermore, it is good to have a system in place with the team goals and the opportunity to have continuous communication about the progress team members are making.

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." - Ernest Hemingway

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2. Trust with the heart = Affective trust

Affective trust is all about the relationships you have with your coworkers. Some call it emotional trust or ‘trust with the heart’.

This type of trust is based on emotional ties you have with the other. It is all about closeness, empathy and mutual care. It takes time to build this kind of trust.

build affective trust virtual team

Virtual teams should invest in affective trust

Because of the distant nature, virtual teams in general are mostly focussed on the tasks at hand and therefore on cognitive trust. It doesn't come as natural to to them to build emotional relationships .

However, investing in this type of trust has been proven to be very valuable to the overall performance of the team.

This is how you build affective trust within your virtual team

To build affective trust and thus emotional bonds, it is important to invest time in getting to know each other on a personal basis.

  • If you have just started out with your team it is a great idea to have a face to face kickoff. This will definitely boost the relationships within the team.
  • In general, it would be good, if it is feasible, to have face 2 face contact on a regular basis. If this is not possible in real life, then make sure you use video often.
  • Furthermore, build in time in your virtual meetings for non-work related talks. And make sure you have a virtual water cooler environment where coworkers can have a chat in between their work tasks.
  • Be kind and supportive to each other. Show that you will go the extra mile to help each other out.

Frequent communication & Safe environment

Make sure you create a safe environment for your team, where coworkers feel free to speak openly and where different backgrounds and characteristics are respected.

In general, it is most important to have frequent opportunities to communicate. The more frequent on both work- as on a non-work related basis, the better the chances of having a strong team built on trust.

Would you like to learn more about how to build strong relationships in a virtual team?

Download the free guide:
'3 fun & easy ways to build strong relationships in a remote team'.

Research used in this article: 

Breuer, Hüffmeier and Hertel (2016) 'Does Trust Matter More in Virtual Teams? A Meta-Analysis of Trust and Team Effectiveness Considering Virtuality and Documentation as Moderators'

De Jong, B. A., Dirks, K. T., & Gillespie, N. (2016). 'Trust and team performance: A meta-analysis of main effects, moderators, and covariates.' ​

Saskia Langenberg

Saskia Langenberg is the founder of Mindshake. With consulting and coaching she helps managers to build great remote teams. And remote workers to have a happy and productive work-life.

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