Trust matters because it helps build a resilient project team. It helps get things done. Trusted team members not only do only what is asked, but what the project needs them to do, because they know that the project manager will trust their decisions and actions. Trust is a shortcut to better working relationships and better project outcomes.
That’s the premise behind Thomas P. Wise’s book, Trust in Virtual Teams. It’s a (pretty academic) guide to explaining trust and building trust in virtual teams. But first, you have to understand what a virtual team is.
A new definition of virtuality
Wise says that virtual teams are traditionally defined by distance. However, he suggests that a definition based on geography is an old-fashioned way of explaining virtuality in a team environment.
You probably have worked in an office where project team members sit practically next to each other emailing each other, and that use of electronic communication means they could be based thousands of miles apart – their working environment and style makes them part of a virtual team, regardless of where they actually sit. For me, this was the big revelation from the book. Up until now I had always thought of virtual teams as being spread across multiple locations, but the modern way if working really means that most of us are part of virtual teams, even if we are office-based.
In the past trust was built through sharing small confidences and water cooler chat. It comes from knowing that your colleague will make your cup of tea just how you like it. But on virtual teams you don’t have the interaction that you have in colocated teams. So how do you build trust when you never get to meet or talk to your colleagues and there are days of silence between email exchanges?
“Team members learn to trust one another as they come together to work,” says Wise. He talks about them having a connectedness through a common vision that helps them work effectively.
However, in virtual teams you may find that trust is initially based on stereotypes. Wise warns that not conforming to stereotypes can actually undermine the development of trust. I’m not sure if I agree with this as a long term strategy for getting your team to trust you, but it would be interesting to investigate this further.
Other things that you can do more easily to build trust, he says, include acting predictably and working from facts. In other words, if you say your project report will come out every Friday at 3pm, make sure it does. And make sure that it reports facts, not opinion.
Dealing with problems
“A problem can occur, however, when we establish a set of rules on how work gets done, and then have a tendency to bend and stretch, and adjust the rules based on unpublished pecking orders and hierarchies,” Wise writes. This is what happens when you don’t act predictably and from the basis of facts. An example of this happening in a project environment would be when it’s ok not to do documentation because it helps hit the overall project deadlines.
Virtual teams are traditionally defined by distance, but today they are defined by working environment and style.
He recommends doing this through Quality Assurance on projects (which is discussed in detail) and transparent project reporting. He also says that it is possible to improve success in virtual teams by using techniques like human resource policy, social events, information sharing through social media tools, training and leadership support.
Team members tend to avoid difficult situations in the early days of working on a new team, so you might think everything is working fine until you get a bit further into the project. The difficult situations are pushed aside and dealt with later, when trust has been built up. “Establishing both a trust relationship and an effective virtual work environment, based on that trust, is critical to reducing project risk.”
The book includes stories from his own experience but no external case studies. I thought it jumped around a bit, which made following the flow difficult. I also thought it ended abruptly, as if he had forgotten to write the conclusion.
If poor trust really does increase project risk, and I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t, then it will help you to review the levels of trust in your project team to see where things could be improved. It doesn’t take a book to do that, but if you want to go deeper into the theories of trust and how these can be applied in the workplace, then this book will help.