Remote Teams: Building Trust

“Working remote” has become a hot topic in the past few weeks with a deluge of articles and advice. Many of those pieces focus on establishing processes and setting up communications, collaboration, and ‘HR Tech’ tools. Those are definitely important, but not enough. Over the nearly thirty years that I’ve been working with remote or distributed teams, I’ve found that while robust technology and processes are essential, it’s people’s behavior and how that affects trust that most determines success or failure.

The Strength of the Wolf is the Pack

What makes leading in a tech-enabled, flat, team-based world challenging is that bad behavior gets amplified…

The dawn of the Internet brought with it the opportunity to communicate instantly across geographies and time zones. In parallel, flatter organizations and changing expectations and attitudes toward work accelerated the use of remote teams. Today, from multinational organizations to startups, remote work has become the norm, with more and more companies becoming ‘remote-first.’ When remote teams are working well, people draw their strength and energy from healthy, trusting team relationships. Broadly, those people share a few essential characteristics:

  • Their personalities, work style preferences, and comfort with technology make them well suited for a distributed team.

  • They’re empathetic toward their teammates no matter the distance or differences in culture, and regardless of whether they’ve ever met in person.
  • They get the importance of trust and are comfortable with constant feedback.

What makes leading in a tech-enabled, flat, team-based world challenging is that bad behavior gets amplified, and it only takes one lone wolf to diminish trust and foster dysfunction across a team or organization. I witnessed first-hand the damage that ensues when you have the wrong person with the wrong behaviors in the wrong role. A few years ago, I set up a new division at an IT company and had to establish a new country sales-and-service organization. Within a few months, I started hearing complaints from the regional HQ team and people within the country. The newly appointed country team leader was arrogant, disrespectful, and bullying people across both the country and regional groups. As turnover jumped, performance dropped, and feedback showed that relationships were deteriorating, it became clear that we had made a severe mistake.

People on highly effective teams excel because of their teammates. Lone wolves may be talented, and of immense value to an organization, but that does not mean that they belong in a pack. When we chose a team leader whose personality and emotional intelligence were a bad fit with the team, and who didn’t understand or care about building trust with others, we unleashed a contagion that began to impact an entire pan-Asian division. While it took longer than it should, we replaced him with a leader who understood the strength of the individuals comes from the team. Balance returned, and we began the process of rebuilding trust.

The Four Trust Building Behaviors

The real strength of any one team member comes from the entire team.

Long-distance relationships are hard. Viewed through the lens of behavioral science, and building on the three characteristics mentioned above, four specific behaviors help leaders build the relationships that lead to successful remote teams:

  1. Ensure that everyone understands and embraces the purpose of the team and can answer the question, “why does our team exist?”
  2. Establish healthy team norms (values) such as everyone has an equal voice, a zero-tolerance for bias, and ensure psychological safety. Then, use those norms to assess people’s behavior – make sure everyone adheres to the values that the team has agreed upon. And, most importantly, actively use them as a guide to reinforce positive behaviors and steer people away from actions at odds with the core values agreed upon by the team.
  3. Inspire individual motivation by meeting people’s core psychological needs at work – understand the purpose they find in their role; the competencies they need to realize that purpose; and the level of freedom they need to be fully engaged and productive. Balancing those three elements should be part of every 1-1 conversation.
  4. Develop trust by frequently gathering feedback from all team members on their expectations versus their actual experiences with teammates, the team leader, and across other teams on whom they depend. Then, understand any gaps and consistently work to close them together as a team.

Those four behaviors develop healthy, trusting relationships along with a shared understanding by anticipating reactions, addressing issues early, and enabling teamwork to progress with less monitoring, greater resource efficiency, and less duplication of effort. Trust and shared understanding are essential for improving the satisfaction and well-being of team members, which leads to higher energy, engagement, and performance.

Without trust we don’t truly collaborate; we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate. It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team.

–Steven M. R. Covey

Building and sustaining high-performing remote teams takes the art and behavioral science of team leadership to another level. All teams face challenges. The reality for remote teams is that they face greater complexity and uncertainty as they strive to overcome the barriers of time, distance, communications, and cultures. When people work at a distance, issues or dysfunctional behaviors are amplified and trust can be easily diminished. But, when they’re successful, remote teams enable the best talent to come together and focus enormous energy, skills, and creativity on achieving a goal regardless of distance, time zones, or culture. They do that by building and sustaining trust in their relationships that enables each person on the team to wake up energized, have a great day working with great people, and finish their day of fulfilled.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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