"Trust is simple, and yet one mistake can set us back on our heels for a very long time," writes Thomas P. Wise in his book, Trust in Virtual Teams. "Trustworthiness can dissipate in a moment of hesitation, a slip of the tongue, or errant email that escapes with a wrong key strike."
That's why it's important to build trust effectively in all project teams, although it's easier for lots of reasons to do this when the team works in the same location. Building trust when you have never met your team members can be a whole other story.
You don't know what their work habits are, you don't know their likes and dislikes, and conflicts can arise over what seems like trivial matters because you lack confidence in each other. Of course, this does get better with time - trust is mainly built through shared experiences and a project is a great example of that - but on some projects you don't have the luxury of being able to build good, trusting relationships over time. On some projects, you need to deliver, and deliver quickly.
Wise's book talks about 3 ways that you can build trust in a virtual team environment. Let's look at them now
The book talks about what trust is and how it is difficult to achieve in a corporate setting because of the baggage we all bring to the office. Everyone has different expectations and people interpret situations differently because of their backgrounds and prior experiences.
Fairness in implementing policy is one of the key trust-making factors. This means that project policies are applied fairly. For example, if you need people to work overtime, make sure that you split the overtime hours fairly between all relevant team members. This means that everyone shares the burden of the extra work (and conversely the overtime payments - some team members may be very keen to do extra work if there is money in it).
Apply it to your team: Make sure that you apply project policies fairly across all team members.
Have reliable data
Trusted data is also important. Everyone should have confidence in the statistics and information coming out of the corporate offices. "If we are collectively able to trust the information we receive as accurate and fair, then simple reports, auto-generated to tell everyone how well a project is complying with the stated lifecycle, are all that an effective organisation requires," Wise writes.
You may have an enterprise project management system that can do this for you. Even if you don't you want to avoid team members preparing their own version of the facts to the point where you end up with several versions of the same data. If you have a Project Management Office, talk to them about the consistent presentation of project information. They may have systems or templates that you can use to ensure there is a single view of the truth.
Apply it to your team: Have one view of the truth for project reporting and ensure everyone has access to this information.
Institutional trust is based on 3 things: consistency, expectation and equity. However, Wise says that you can trust that the application of rules will be unfair; in other words you are confident that the rules will not be applied consistently. So you can trust that you can't trust them, if that makes sense.
While this might be the case for big businesses - how different departments apply the 'rules' is bound to be different across different managers - you can make sure that your project applies policies and approaches as consistently as possible. Consider how you reward team members. Are you always consistent with your approach to thanking and rewarding everyone, regardless of where they work? Do they know exactly what you expect of them so there are no inconsistencies?
Apply it to your team: Set realistic expectations for your team members and reward them consistently.
Building trust in virtual teams may take a little bit longer than it does in a team that works in the same building and whose members eat lunch together every day, but it can be done. And it can be done quite relatively quickly if you follow these 3 pieces of advice. Share them with your team members as well, so that everyone knows what standards are expected of them and what they can expect from each other.