Flex Basics
February 16, 2024

Building Trust in Remote Teams: 4 Actions Leaders Must Take

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Lindsay Kohler
Lead Behavioral Scientist
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According to Gallup, trust in organizational leadership continues to fall, with only 23% of employees reporting that they trust their company’s leaders. While trust takes time to build, no matter where your team reports, there’s no denying that as a remote team leader, your work is cut out for you.

When we were all together in the office, there were clear (albeit subtle) clues that signaled trustworthiness: the thoughtfulness of notes someone takes during a meeting or how someone talks to their colleagues in the lunchroom. But as a remote leader, you don’t have those moments to depend on to build trust.

What makes this even more challenging is that trust matters more in remote teams — a meta-analysis of 52 studies found that the correlation between team trust and team performance was even stronger in virtual teams than in-person teams.

Why Trust Matters

Trust is the glue that holds organizations together. Without trust, there is no collaboration or cooperation. Behaviors such as micromanaging, lack of delegation, withholding of information, and more crop up in the absence of trust. That’s why leaders must continually work at building and reinforcing trusted relationships.

If you want to build trust with your direct reports in remote teams, you should focus on how you’re signaling to your team your own trustworthiness. Here are four actionable strategies that you can employ to do just that.

Action 1: Be Credible

Trust and credibility go hand-in-hand. But where trust is a feeling about intent, credibility is a more logical decision based on someone’s track record over time. It is possible to be both a beloved leader and lack credibility. Those leaders may be well-liked, but they are likely not trusted. Credibility is especially important in remote teams, given that team members have less in-person exposure to the leader.

Consider including questions on your track record in your next 360 review process. In your self-assessment, add a question like, “Do I follow through when I say I will,” and ask your team members to grade you on the same question. You’ll get a sense of how your team’s perspective compares to yours, with the bonus of signaling to your team that this topic is important to you.

Action 2: Be Consistent

Nothing erodes trust faster than never knowing what version of a leader you will get on any given day. Given that predictability is a key foundation of trust, leaders who want to be trustworthy have a responsibility to show up in the same way every day — and make an extra effort to ensure those consistent actions are visible to people, which is harder to do remotely.

Leaders should be consistent in their communication style, decision-making rules, treatment of the team, availability, personality, and more. For example, don’t communicate one expectation on work delivery/timeline to remote employees and a different expectation to primarily in-office employees. Inconsistency can breed confusion and undermine your trust with your remote employees.

Action 3: Over-Index on Compassion

Employees need to feel that their leaders want what is best for them. However, we often overestimate how much of our emotions are visible to others — this is known as the illusion of transparency. In remote teams, the lack of in-person interaction can exacerbate this illusion, making it more challenging for leaders to convey their genuine care and appreciation.

When working remotely, leaders should be mindful of the reduced availability of non-verbal cues essential for conveying emotions. Err on the side of overcompensation by saying "thank you" more often and providing specific and detailed feedback when expressing appreciation for a team member’s work.

In the absence of in-person interactions, try employing a framework-driven approach. For instance, regularly schedule virtual team meetings to publicly acknowledge and celebrate individual and collective achievements. Use these opportunities to highlight specific contributions, outlining how they align with the team's goals and positively impact the organization. This structured approach ensures that praise and compassion are consistently conveyed, mitigating the challenges posed by the lack of in-person time.

Action 4: Check In Regularly

It can be easy to go weeks without talking with certain colleagues when you’re not in the same place, especially if you aren’t on projects together. Building trust benefits from repeated exposure partly due to the mere exposure effect, which explains how we develop preferences for things with which we are familiar.

Scheduling a recurring check-in meeting with your direct reports ensures you’ll have regular “face” time with those needing it. This intentional approach not only fosters trust through increased exposure but also demonstrates a commitment to maintaining strong and supportive working relationships in the absence of physical proximity.

Forging Trust in Remote Leadership: A Blueprint for Success

Understanding the elements of trust and the specific dynamics of building trust in remote teams equips you to become a more impactful leader. To forge trust within your remote team, prioritize the following four key actions:

  1. Be Credible: Cultivate a robust track record of reliability and consistency, acknowledging that credibility is a logical decision shaped by your demonstrated performance over time.

  2. Be Consistent: Provide a reliable leadership style and decision-making process, emphasizing the importance of predictability as a foundational element of trust.

  3. Over-index on Compassion: Actively express gratitude and empathy regularly. Given the challenges of remote communication, try a framework-driven approach to ensure your appreciation is consistently conveyed.

  4. Check In Regularly: Combat the potential isolation of remote work by scheduling recurring check-in meetings with your direct reports. Recognize the significance of repeated exposure in building trust.

By proactively implementing these four actions, you will not only navigate the complexities of remote leadership more effectively; but also establish trust as the linchpin of a highly productive and connected remote team. In an era where remote work is increasingly prevalent, trust becomes a cornerstone and the foundation of leadership success, fostering a collaborative and resilient team that thrives in the remote landscape.

About the Author

Lindsay Kohler

Lindsay Kohler is an applied behavioral scientist with an MSc in Behavioral Science from The London School of Economics and is the lead behavioral scientist at employee engagement consultancy scarlettabbott. She has over 15 years of experience helping to solve engagement challenges for top brands. She is a Forbes contributor, and her writing appears in various industry publications, such as Harvard Business Review, UNLEASH, theHRDirector, and more. She is also co-author of the best-selling book Even Better If: Building Better Businesses, Better Leaders, and Better Selves.

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