June 25, 2021 / Esther Choy

Secrets to building trust with your virtual team hinge on great communication.

It’s Monday morning. Your team of 18 is ready to meet at 10:00AM, Eastern time. Seven of them are in your office in New York City. Two of them are in Atlanta, while another three are in San Francisco and  in Chicago. The rest are in Tokyo.

Depending on your business, you may be working with people from around the world as clients, contractors, and coworkers. While this opens up a host of exciting opportunities, the virtual workspace also comes with a higher risk of misunderstanding and miscommunication, as well as challenges for team cohesion.

In her new book, Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance, Erica Dhawan demystifies digital communication to reveal how we habitually send messages that go beyond the simple words we use. She outlines different strategies to build better trust on a virtual team where there is little face time and ample opportunity for disconnection.“Traditional body language cues are no longer effective in a virtual setting and have to be translated to its digital counterpart, such as punctuation, video call backgrounds, abbreviations, signatures, and response time, in order to reduce misunderstandings and lead with clarity,” she explains.

It takes concerted effort to bond a partially or totally virtual team. With that in mind, here are three basics to building trust and unlocking their best performance and morale.

1. Dedicate time to personal stories.

Something that is missed when many employees work remotely is the ability to chit chat in the breakroom or ask each other about the photos or baseball paraphernalia or cactus collection in their office. Our personal stories, well, humanize us! Without a serendipitous way to run into details about someone, leaders have to be more intentional about giving team members opportunities to tell their stories. 

Brene Brown starts her staff meetings by asking everyone to share two words to describe how they are feeling. Our client Dan Balzer shared with us how he uses strategies like sharing employee contributions to inspire and bind teams. Dhawan noted that, “One member of an entirely remote team told me that before the workday begins, her team has a virtual ‘coffee break’ on Zoom. For 10 minutes every morning, they talk about anything non-work-related. Another team I know uses Lastminute, a digital tool that sends randomized virtual meal invites, so colleagues can get to know one another and have actual time to eat lunch between back-to-back video calls. Having these ‘watercooler spaces’ is a great way for teams to celebrate successes, share challenges, and foster connection with one another.”

As we found when using storytelling to solve the problem of languishing, creating space for personal stories catalyzes bonding and trust. 

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2. Simplify communication.

Dhawan emphasizes that a clear protocol around digital communication can take a heavy burden off employees. Knowing what channels to use and when prevents misunderstanding and frustration. To use a personal example, at Leadership Story Lab, we use Slack to communicate throughout the week; everything flows through there, and no one wonders where to find notes, documents, or links. 

Harvard Business Review’s research also shows us that establishing blocks (“bursts”) of communication and of uninterrupted work time maximize productivity because we’re better able to deeply focus on our tasks when we’re not constantly interrupted. No one wants to feel constantly sidetracked, and no one wants to feel surveilled, either; that won’t build trust. 

Leadership should also give attention to how their digital communication sends messages they might not intend. “There are gender, generational, and cultural divides in digital body language that influence the way we interpret the same digital cues,” notes Dhawan. “Capitalization, periods, even question marks, in addition to many other digital body language cues, can easily evoke unintended meaning.” Getting feedback on your own style, and speaking to team members whose style may be misunderstood, helps prevent unnecessary conflict.

3. Set measurable, fair, and relevant benchmarks.

When teams are virtual, metrics of productivity and success need a careful overhaul. Explicit commitments and their delivery become vital to a smooth-running, interdependent team. Stating specific deadlines and concrete deliverables lets everyone know what is expected of them and when. (For example: a weak commitment is, “I will figure out the pitch for this client,” while a strong commitment is, “I will submit a first draft of the pitch deck for this client to the team by Friday so we can polish it together.”) Then, managers should free their trusted employees to do what they do best, while being available for questions and support. 

New Yorker author Cal Newport cites productivity apps like Trello, Asana, and Microsoft Flow as tools to provide both transparency and focus as team members get a small number of specific tasks to complete in a specific time frame. The entire team knows when tasks are done and when deliverables are ready for next steps.  

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Remote work comes with challenges, but they can be overcome, and a strong virtual team can be cultivated with intentional practices. If you lead a team where some or all members are remote, Dhawan has some simple advice: “Don’t leave messages unanswered, and make sure to express gratitude as often as possible.”

Need more ideas for bonding your virtual team? Try our paired introduction.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.

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