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Top Methods for Building Trust in Virtual Teams

by Gábor Zöld
/ March 31, 2022
#Management
Building trust in virtual teams Anand Safi

Building trust is a challenge for any leader in any position.

Building trust in virtual teams is even more difficult.

What methods do you use?

How do you go about building trust remotely when you take over a team?

We bring you answers to these questions from Anand Safi, Senior Engineering Leader at Mark43. This blog post is written based on episode 60 of the Level-up Engineering podcast hosted by Karolina Toth.

This post covers:

What does trust mean in the workplace?

I consider trust in the workplace a continuously evolving concept driven by individuals.

In my definition, trust at the workplace is the level of credibility you see in your colleagues and your organization. It’s how much you feel that you can rely on the information you receive from them.

The difficult part is earning trust and repairing it if it breaks. Once you’ve established it, it’s rewarding as trust provides you the support you need from your colleagues. This is essential because you spend a large part of your days together.

In my experience, when you join a new company, you always either start trusting too much or too little. Recently, I read an article explaining that there are two types of trusting personalities: automatic and evidence-based.

People who establish trust too easily tend to assume the bright side of a tough situation or conflict. People basing their trust on evidence take their time to get comfortable around new coworkers, and they’re more likely to have negative thoughts when others make small mistakes. These events may set them back in building trust.

What’s the difference between building trust in a virtual team compared to an office environment?

As far as I see, the future will be a combination of remote and hybrid teams. We need to work out the best practices to build trust in a virtual environment, since it’s less straightforward than building trust in person.

Office advantage

Easy accessibility

In an office environment, you can walk over to the person you want to talk to anytime or you can meet them in the hallway, the kitchen, or have a coffee together. It’s even easier if you’re in the same room. It takes more effort to set up a call for the same discussion in a virtual environment.

Smooth communication

Interpersonal communication can also be smoother in an office. You can feel out a lot from a persons’ body language. Miscommunication or second guessing is less likely to happen as well.

Office challenge

Becoming snug

The advantages of the office environment have made me and most people so comfortable that switching to remote and hybrid teams became more difficult than necessary. We’ve always worked under the presumption that we can only build trust and resolve issues using in-person conversations. This is fading after working remotely for a couple of years, but it has been a challenge.

One-on-one meetings

One-on-one meetings have become easier to manage in a virtual team. You don’t have to sit in a meeting room all day talking to one team member after another; you can fit one-on-ones into your schedule more organically.

The abundance of social interactions in the office may lead you to think you don’t need these meetings, but in remote teams, you need to have them often. Frequent 20- to 30-minute meetings help a lot with building and maintaining connections.

Virtual advantage

Improved culture of communication

Working in remote teams presents an opportunity to build a more sustainable culture of communication.

Once your team gets into a rhythm, leaders need to do less upkeep and monitoring to facilitate conversations. In my current team, I don’t need to check whether the engineers are connecting with each other or the product managers are getting the answers they need. These connections have been working reliably since people got comfortable in the virtual environment.

More intentional time management

The remote environment makes us consider each other’s personal lives and commitments more. For example, it used to be an issue that I only had time to meet a colleague after 4:00PM and I expected that would be okay, but they left at 3:30 to pick up their child from school. This becomes less of an issue because we invest more effort into scheduling meetings to work for everyone involved.

Virtual challenge

Group interactions

It’s difficult to lead with empathy in a remote environment. You have opportunities to connect with individuals, but group interactions are challenging.

You need to make sure to provide everyone the opportunity to speak their minds. You can go around and ask everyone individually or you can utilize the raise-hand features, but giving everyone a chance to speak up on every topic is still difficult.

Also, every participant can have distractions happen during a call individually, making it hard for them to keep up with the discussion.

Common misunderstandings

Misunderstandings are more likely to happen on remote channels. For example, I’ve been working from home for a while. Something can happen off camera that puts a mixed expression on my face that can be misinterpreted by the person on the other side - or the other way around.

People easily jump to questioning the commitment or time management skills of others. For example, if a coworker is five minutes late for a meeting, the thought that this person is just lazy and doesn’t respect your time is likely to cross your mind. It’s not obvious to instinctively respect everyone’s personal lives, and it’s easier to assume that they aren’t doing their part in a remote environment.

What are your methods of building trust in a virtual team?

Commit to your words

You need to be genuine and consistent with your verbal commitments. You can’t promise something to one of your direct reports in a one-on-one and do the opposite in a team meeting the next week.

Consider feedback preferences

Avoid giving surprise feedback, whether it’s positive or constructive, to maintain a trusting relationship.

There is a saying in leadership, “Praise in public, criticize in private.” In my time as a manager, I’ve even seen even senior engineers who didn’t like public praise. Some people prefer to work behind the scenes and see the team succeed over getting praise in all-hands meetings.

It comes down to giving people feedback the way they prefer it based on their personality types. You can give anyone praise in a one-on-one situation, but it’s not obvious that they want you to announce that in front of hundreds of people in an all-hands meeting. Some people may be okay with it but only if you let them know that you plan to do it beforehand.

Trust helps you scale

I’ve invested a lot in my team and in those relationships over the past year, and it’s paying off as we scale the team.

I can’t put the same amount of effort into my relationships with a bigger team. For now, I’m managing individual contributors, but soon I may be managing managers. Trust keeps us functioning in phases when we have less face time.

They know who I am as a person and understand my principles in decision making so they can be productive even when I’m not present. Building a self-managed team stops the leader from becoming a bottleneck for the team.

How do you encourage your team members to build trust among each other in a virtual team?

I haven’t done a conflict resolution meeting with two colleagues and myself so far. I don’t believe a three-way conversation would allow them to speak their mind freely and iron out their differences.

I’ve had a couple of conflicts within my team, but I’ve managed it with me talking to both of them in one-on-one meetings and leaving the resolution to them. It has worked so far; one of them has always reached out to the other and they’ve figured it out.

The denominator of the trust equation is that the amount of trust depends on what you see other people trying to do for their self-interest. This causes most of the miscommunication in technical discussions. An engineer may feel like another person is trying to push their own agenda.

As a manager, I have to remind them of the team values. I point out that I see both of them being invested in improving our product with different approaches. I point out the differences, and that allows them to eventually realize the value in each other’s’ approach.

Alternatively, you can choose one strong opinion over another as long as you fully explain your reasons to go in that direction. It’s also an option to not go all in but just start moving in one direction and decide whether you want to change course once you’ve seen some results. This allows the conversation to play out in practice, and positive results may convince doubters, or negative results may prove that the alternative is better.

How can you measure trust in a virtual team?

Individual level

One-on-one meetings

At an individual level, you can use one-on-one meetings to measure trust. You want to build a safe space with psychological safety where people can be open and transparent with each other.

Team level

Engagement with team ceremonies

At the team level, you want to prioritize professionalism and mix in some casual behavior. You set up your weekly team ceremonies, and the team members’ commitment to these builds trust. You can measure it in your team members’ work, their attendance, and the way they give updates in daily standups.

Pay attention to the way your team members deliver updates. If they tend to say, “I’m working on it; I’ll get back to you when it’s done. Bye,” you may want to dig into the situation. If they tend to get into details about what they’re doing, what they’re struggling with, or even ask for help, it signals that they trust the team.

Organization level

Transparency in communication

At the organizational level, the metric can be transparency around communication. Once you’ve built trust with individuals, you can build organizational trust on the back of that.

As an engineer, I used to think, “I wish leadership would tell us about every problem; there is no reason not to.” As a leader partaking in some of these conversations, I’ve had to realize how fluid strategic decisions are. I prefer going to my reports with concrete information rather than updates on discussions that may change by next week.

I put effort into coaching my team to understand the leadership's position. I assure them that we’re working on a strategy, and I’ll make sure to update them when we have a plan to execute. Their reaction lets you know how much they trust the organization.

The key to organizational trust is being heard. There may be a number of competing priorities, but the main point is to let everyone know that you take their issues seriously and it’s on the agenda even if nothing is guaranteed. The more I trust executive leadership to take the issues I bring to them seriously, the more I can advocate for them in front of my team. 

What channels do you use to give feedback in a virtual team?

I need to collect feedback from my team to make myself the best leader I can be and to be able to give feedback to them.

One-on-one meetings

I alternate between bringing up two topics of career development in my one-on-one meetings. One topic is whether my reports enjoy the work and the opportunities that they have. The other question is what they want to do 3-12 months from now.

I consider it a manager's top priority to align opportunity with interests. As long as my team members tell me what they want to do, I can steer the team towards opportunities that line up with that. This makes their work interesting and challenging, and engineers tend to prefer that.

I need feedback from my team to be able to lead them in the right direction.

I try to give them feedback each month. It’s based on what we committed to verbally, how their contributions are going, and what they want to do more or less of.

I have a photographic memory, which helps me hunt down Slack messages even from six months ago. That helps me when delivering feedback, so I can back up previously discussed items with their own words.

Performance reviews

We have performance reviews bi-annually. You don’t want a yearly performance review to just meet expectations. You want to find the key moments when a person stood up for the team, took on tasks no one else was willing to, or went above and beyond.

Managers tend to praise firefighting, solving unexpected incidents. I’m making an effort to shift the conversations towards celebrating people who build fireproof architectures. Not having problems in the first place beats solving them, so I aim to reward that as well.

You have to balance this. You don’t want your team to over-engineer every pull request to the point where safeguards against an unlikely error take 10X more work than the task itself. On the other hand, some proactivity can help you prevent issues.

Peer feedback

I’m working on implementing peer feedback into our engineering culture. Some feedback doesn’t have to come from me, since I’m not equipped with the necessary information on the technical side.

We hold an engineering roundtable with my team every week to support our retrospectives. This has helped open up our engineers to peer feedback. I can’t give technical feedback on everything, because as a manager, my focus has shifted towards decision making from implementation.

I trust my teams to deal with the technical aspects, so they need to give feedback to each other. They have to deal with the consequences of each other’s technical decisions.

Story of Anand building trust in his virtual team

Currently, I’m leading a fully remote engineering team. The closest company office is in Toronto, which is about seven hours away from where I live, but I haven’t had a chance to travel there yet.

My domain expertise is in web development, so mobile technologies were somewhat new to me. At the time I joined, the mobile division was just founded with one engineer building the MVP, one designer, one product manager, and another engineer helping out with the backend. The company planned to invest more into the division moving forward, and I took on the leadership role.

I’ve faced challenges on multiple levels. I had to simultaneously establish trust with my manager, my peers and my direct reports; learn the organization culture; and advocate for my division in the company.

The first thing to tackle for me was making it clear for everyone what changes they could expect and to show leadership that I understood the vision for the division.

I spent the first months building trust with my colleagues in one-on-one meetings. That included my peers in engineering, product, design and my team members in every discipline as well. Building trust with your cross-functional peers is as important for a leader as building trust with your team.

Beyond building up a rapport with them, I was also looking to understand what they were struggling with. I kept digging deeper; it may have even been uncomfortable at times, but I wanted to show that I cared about them and that I believed in the success of our division.

I was genuine and showed vulnerability. I explained that I used to be in their place with little direction from leadership, because the connective tissue of frontline management was missing. The goal was to align the team, so I could advocate for us to leadership.

This has been working out, and my team has grown to a team of 12 so far. This includes seven engineers, two designers, one product lead and a product consultant.

My team’s success is built on trust. The people we started the mobile division with are still on the team despite highs and lows in morale. This show of trust drives me to want to keep building the team for their sake.

The other product divisions in our company consist of 30-40 people or more. My trust in my team makes me a better advocate for them when it comes to budgeting, resourcing and prioritizing.

About Anand Safi

Anand is currently a Senior Engineering Leader at Mark43 leading three teams focused on building mobile-first solutions.

He’s been in the tech industry for 12 years, and he started his career as an automation engineer. He did his early studies in India; he moved to the US to get his master’s degree, and he worked there for a decade. He’s spent the past two and half years in Montreal, Canada.

Beside his job, he loves to mentor others on various platforms and advise startups, and he’s a volunteer board member for two nonprofit groups. He and his wife have a food blog together with over 85,000 followers on Instagram.

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About the author:

Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.