Virtual teams face greater complexity and uncertainty as they strive to overcome the barriers of time, distance, culture, and communications. When successful, virtual teams enable the best talent to come together and amplify energy, competencies, and creativity. However, there are significant challenges to developing highly-effective teams across time zones and cultures. One of the top challenges for virtual team leaders is the critical importance of developing and maintaining trusting relationships across their team. Trust is an essential, if not the essential, ingredient in developing and sustaining strong relationships. For a virtual team, the level of trust is reflected in the confidence and positive expectations teammates have about each other’s behavior and the team leader. Equally critical is how trust develops – especially if you are the leader of a virtual team.
In their report, Trends in Global Virtual Teams, the researchers at CultureWizard identified key challenges to virtual team performance and well-being. Those challenges include team leaders lacking self-awareness resulting in (or being caused by) a strong superiority bias. The numbers tell the story – 98% of self-identified global team leaders said that they were happy with their intercultural leadership skills. Whereas, only 19% of team members felt that their team leaders were well prepared for the challenge, and only 34% of the leaders had participated in formal global leadership training.
It is near impossible to build trust in a team if you aren’t mindful of how you’re viewed by the people on your team. You must be purposeful in your efforts to understand how trust develops, and then foster it on your team.
Start with a mirror and ask yourself two questions: “How much do people on my team trust me?” and “How do I know that?” If you can’t answer those questions with certainty, then you need to muster the courage to ask. You needn’t do that directly (most people cringe when asked “Do you trust me”?). Instead, try asking how their expectations of support (to help them accomplish the team’s goals) compares to what they’re experiencing.
As a team comes together, initial trust is based upon the first team interactions along with expectations that there will be clarity of team purpose and norms. Then, as you work with your team, people will start to develop time-based trust. This deeper level of trust is highly dependent on how well they maintain the team’s norms, as well as how effectively the team members deal with disparities in their experiences versus what they’re expecting.
Lessons from the Best
Earlier this month, Veronica Gilrane, People Analytics Manager at Google, published the results of research that she and her team conducted in order to better understand the impact of virtual teamwork. Google reflects the present and future of virtual teamwork in many large, global organizations. With over 100,000 people spread over 150 cities in more than 50 countries, a significant amount of work must be accomplished with people that you don’t bump into in the hallway. The People Innovation Lab (PiLab) numbers show that 48% of meetings involve people from two or more campus building sites; 39% two or more cities; and 30% of meetings happen across two or more time zones.
Veronica’s team sought feedback from more than 5000 employees around the world and conducted in-person focus groups with another hundred people. The PiLab team measured factors such as well-being, performance, and connectedness. Unsurprisingly, people reported that staying connected across time zones and cultures can make establishing connections more difficult. People also reported that they perceived no meaningful differences in the effectiveness, well-being, or career opportunities as virtual team members. So how does Google maintain the trust necessary to keep both performance and well-being high?
As shown by the efforts of the PiLab team, they are focused on feedback, followed by mapping and measuring results, and then identifying the few key actions that will have the greatest impact. The team’s recommended actions to maintain connectedness and well-being focused on a few key areas:
Establish rapport: Team leaders that foster informal conversation before jumping into the business at hand help co-workers to get to know each other as people and build human connections that impact effectiveness and well-being.
Establish rules and boundaries: Don’t assume. Ask the team for feedback and the rules by which they will operate, including the optimal time for meetings.
Balance face-to-face with virtual: Leaders should lay out clear guidelines for in-person meetings and create opportunities at key times to establish those face-to-face connections.
Establish healthy norms: It is especially important on video/virtual calls that the leader establish team norms – such as ensuring psychological safety and equal voice – and then use those norms to guide behavior. For example, make sure that you visibly acknowledge people’s contributions.
Google prides itself on its extraordinary teams. Support by the PiLab provides team leaders with feedback, metrics, and recommendations that help ensure that they sustain the levels of trust necessary to stay extraordinary.
Trust is Your Currency
Your organization may not have the resources and expertise that Google has to support their teams, but as a virtual team leader, you face the same challenges and hold the same currency as any team leader at Google – trust. The value of that currency is up to you. Invest in establishing clear purpose and healthy norms; use those norms to guide and assess behavior, and be obsessed with feedback and consistently closing experience-expectation gaps. Those actions will steadily increase the value of your currency. Likewise, exercise caution as a misstep can cause the value to tumble rapidly, undoing your efforts and sending you back to square one to rebuild.
Trust holds the key to strong relationships and crafting an extraordinary team. If you’ve taken on the challenge of leading a virtual team, especially a global, cross-cultural team, then you’ve taken on one of the most challenging and rewarding leadership assignments of your career. Start with a mirror and then focus on increasing the value of your virtual currency. If you’ve got trust, you can get extraordinary.