The Secret Ingredient

Trusting Remote Workers

When speaking about telecommuting and remote working arrangements one common theme seems to come up time and time again “how can I trust that they are working if I can’t see them”?

In an article published by states that “Ultimately the answer is the same whether the person is down the hall or across the planet. What it takes to build trust involves desire, competence, consistency, intention, and connection. The ingredients for trust building are the ingredients for relationship building. Both are grounded in best of self behaviours. That’s true no matter who you are or where you work, and whether you work remotely or lead a remote staff”.

Core to the strategy of building trust is a change of perception that work is a thing you do, not a place you go. Building trust is critical to the success of remote work and in fact the success of any team. In a workplace setting you need to know that the people you’re working with are reliable, consistent and responsive. Everyone needs to be able to rely on each other and to know that their end of the bargain will be met. This is not new or exclusive to remote workers. What does need some adjusting is how you build the relationships to form the trust.

Setting up clear expectations and lines of communication is a best first step in building relationships. Clear and consistent communication lets everyone know what is expected of them and leaves no room for ambiguity. Two-way feedback, checking in and giving status updates to ensure that team members are on the right track is a great way to show support and interest from both parties and quickly builds a stronger rapport and trust.

Remembering that even though people aren’t in the same physical proximity doesn’t mean that they don’t have the same feelings as if they were with you. Maintaining a real human element is critical. People need to feel that they are part of the team and working with other humans even if they aren’t always face- to-face.

Building trust in remote teams comes down to collaboration and communication so how can managers create trust in teams?

An article published by list six areas that managers of traditional teams need to develop or learn in order to create trust and effective communication in remote teams;

  • Lead by example. We know that one way individuals learn to behave at work is by copying the behaviours of their manager and other senior staff members. Demonstrate to your team that sharing information and trusting one another are “the way things are done here”.
  • Encourage open communication. Ensure that your team meets regularly enough to maintain open lines of communication. A “Team Agreement” is a transparent way to clearly articulate the norms that are expected of team members.
  • Limit multitasking in meetings. Because everyone isn’t physically gathered together, and sometimes we cant’ see each other, we often have the tendency to work on to-do lists rather than devote full attention to the meeting and our teammates. This has a detrimental effect on trust. Make it clear that working off-task is part of the agreement.
  • Spend time on team process and relationships. Make sure all team members know what is expected of them, and why they’re involved. This helps overcome the tendency to multitask and keep people engaged.
  • Increase appreciation. Increase the amount of recognition you give team members. Express empathy by using active listening without judgement and accept different opinions openly.
  • Don’t assume silence means agreement. Silence can have a number of causes; misunderstanding, lack of a safe environment, fear of risk taking, and differences in power. It might also mean they agree, but if you don’t ask, you won’t know.

If relationships are the cornerstone of trust and we know that relationships can take time to evolve it is quite easy to strategically move the dial on the relationships within a remote team and develop trust quite quickly.

Startup Stock Photos recommend moving from high visibility to low fidelity. They say whether you’ve just hired a new remote employee, or want to improve your relationship with existing telecommuters, this progression establishes and advances team collaboration. They recommend to move through four stages of communication:

  1. Kick It off in Person

There is no replacement for face-to-face interaction, especially at the beginning of a relationship. Bring your employees to the mothership to give them a tangible sense of company culture. Make them feel like part of the team on campus and put a face to as many names as possible. Provide a welcoming, well-prepared work station and coordinate both work and non-work related activities: brainstorming sessions, executive meet-and-greets, lunches, happy hours. The travel costs will be well worth the investment in your team’s foundation.

  1. Encourage Video Conferencing

As your remote employee settles in, push for video conferencing rather than phone calls. You might get some pushback here – for many people, the biggest benefit of telecommuting is working in pajamas, and scheduled conference calling has become the de facto form of corporate communication. But seeing each other makes a huge difference. Facial expressions and body language often say more than words, and sharing your space, even virtually, boosts familiarity. A quick ping – “got a sec?” – followed by a short video chat furthers trust and productivity far more effectively than a conference call scheduled three days earlier.

  1. Transition to Audio

No matter how sophisticated video collaboration becomes, we’ll never escape the conference call. And that’s ok. Especially once your team is comfortable with you and each other, phone calls are an easy way to touch base. As mutual trust increases, flexibility does as well. Video chats aren’t a good solution if you need to check in while at your kid’s soccer game, or join a meeting from the road. Use the phone and VOIP to stay in touch when your team is away from the desk.

  1. Stay Connected With Text and IM

Text and instant message are ubiquitous in the workplace, and with good reason: IM is the easiest way to get a quick response. But be careful of relying too heavily on IM until remote employees are well established. A strong instant message culture can make new team members feel tied to their desks, which fosters anxiety – the opposite of trust. In addition, it’s virtually impossible to convey inflection and emotion over text, which gets tricky when you don’t know each other well. Conversely, once those relationships are established, IM is a great way to communicate concisely. At your desk or out and about, a quick text keeps you in sync with your team without wasted time or resources.

From freelancers to the enterprise, telecommuting is here to stay. Starting with high visibility, in-person touchpoints, using video to deepen your relationships, and relying on convenient, low fidelity communication models as trust develops can help the telecommuters on your team feel more engaged, and less remote.