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Why the Key to Virtual Team Effectiveness Is Team Trust

For virtual teams to be successful, they'll need to focus on team trust.

Key points

  • Compared to face-to-face teams, virtual teams have a harder time building trust.
  • Some of the biggest challenges of virtual teaming entail loss of non-verbal cues and inaccurate assumptions.
  • To overcome the challenges of virtual teaming, team members need to create structure around communication norms.

Most employees want to be able to work from anywhere, reporting that they feel more productive and have heightened well-being. Organizational leaders are hesitant and typically want more in-office work. The concern is that team collaboration and team effectiveness will suffer.

As it turns out, this sentiment is [kind of] correct. Virtual teams can be just as effective as face-to-face teams, but only if the team members adjust their approach to virtual teaming. Organizations that can figure out how to create and nurture effective virtual teaming will not only have high-performing teams, but happier employees. Along those lines, what follows is a summary of key considerations regarding virtual teaming.

Trust, Trust, and More Trust

By far the biggest predictor of virtual team effectiveness is team trust. Meta-analytic evidence illustrates that team trust has a strong positive relationship with team effectiveness in face-to-face environments. This relationship is even more pronounced in virtual environments.

What Is Team Trust?

In essence, team trust entails the extent to which team members show up and do what they say they’ll do. The more formal definition of team trust is “the common belief among a group of individuals that another individual or group (a) makes good-faith efforts to behave in accordance with any commitments both explicit or implicit, (b) is honest in whatever negotiations preceded such commitments, and (c) does not take excessive advantage of another even when the opportunity is available.” (Cummings & Bromiley, 1996, p. 303).

Why Is Team Trust Important?

Not only is team trust related to team effectiveness, but it’s also related to asking for help, sharing feedback, and discussing challenging issues or conflicts.

Why Is Trust Harder to Create and Maintain in Virtual Environments?

The first challenge is specific to communication. Virtual environments make it harder to have in-depth personal interactions. In virtual environments, we have a higher likelihood of cutting out informal communications before and after meetings. It can also be harder to understand non-verbals or infer the intentions of others, which again makes it harder to share how we’re really feeling.

The second challenge is specific to visibility. We have a harder time gauging the efforts and progress of our team members, we tend to rely more on assumptions and biases, and we have a harder time noticing when team members are disengaged and need a pick-me-up. Relatedly, virtual teaming makes it harder to have “impromptu task awareness.” We tend to figure out who team members are, what they do, and what they are working on when we engage in causal face-to-face interaction. It also can sometimes be harder to remember to keep people in the loop if they aren’t visibly present.

How Can We Increase Team Trust in Virtual Environments?

  • Promote early social exchange: If possible, get project teams together face to face to kick things off. Make sure that the earliest interactions, regardless of medium, focus on social exchange. This also applies to the beginning of meetings. Create buffer time at the beginning of meetings when team members are just beginning to work together.
  • Create non-work discussion opportunities: Get creative and focus on high-quality prompts. But be careful; don’t force it, be organic.
  • Personal characteristics: Communication has always been at the top of employers’ favorite soft skills. Be on the lookout for communication approaches that are well-aligned with the virtual work environment, namely, honesty, openness, and clarity.
  • More structure: Virtual teams should have clear group rules for response time and closed-loop communication expectations (i.e., all communication should have an endpoint or confirmation of receipt).

What’s the Best Way to Structure Virtual Team Meetings?

Technology allows us to put hundreds of people together in real-time. But be careful, multi-tasking, turning off the camera, and disengagement starts to increase once you have approximately 20 people in a virtual meeting. If you are considering communicating something to more than 20 people at a time, it might be better to use asynchronous communication because more than likely there won’t be opportunities for much interaction.

If you have a hybrid work environment, consider saving two types of activities for face-to-face: team-building and complex obstacles. You’ll get more out of the team-building experience when you have opportunities for impromptu conversations and non-verbal communication. Complex tasks can also take longer when working virtually. Save your big-ticket troubleshoot sessions for pre-organized face-to-face meetings.

References

Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1151-1177.

Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., Hibben, F., & Hertel, G. (2020). Trust in teams: A taxonomy of perceived trustworthiness factors and risk-taking behaviors in face-to-face and virtual teams. Human Relations, 73(1), 3-34.

De Jong, B. A., Dirks, K. T., & Gillespie, N. (2016). Trust and team performance: A meta-analysis of main effects, moderators, and covariates. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1134-1150.

Marlow, S. L., Lacerenza, C. N., & Salas, E. (2017). Communication in virtual teams: A conceptual framework and research agenda. Human Resource Management Review, 27(4), 575-589.

Morrison-Smith, S., & Ruiz, J. (2020). Challenges and barriers in virtual teams: a literature review. SN Applied Sciences, 2, 1-33.

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