October 23, 2019

How to create trust in virtual teams

The first basic principle of making virtual teams work is to get the team to meet physically in the early stages of the team. Face-to-face communication is still the best way to build relationships among team members and foster trust. Indeed, as one study shows, virtual teams that met face-to-face in the early stages of the team had higher levels of trust than virtual teams that did not meet face-to-face, and these trust levels were sustained over time.

But what if it was not possible to bring your virtual team together?

An alternative solution is to have a virtual team building session. Often, team building activities used for co-located teams are transferred to the virtual work context. However, there is a problem — “ the amount of activities that can be done online dramatically decreases. When you think about team building, you think about an outward bound trip, a trust fall, or something that involves blindfolds; but when it comes to the virtual work team context, these activities cannot be carried out. This might explain why virtual team building activities are limited to social ice breakers like ‘two truths and a lie’, where the aim of the game is to find out some sort of personal information about your teammates.

Social ice breakers are great for finding out about whether your teammates have ever gone skydiving but it doesn’t do much for creating trust. Research suggests two underlying strategies for facilitating trust development.

First, promote trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness has three components

  • ability, having the necessary skills and knowledge to successfully perform a role,
  • integrity, the belief that your teammate is of moral character
  • benevolence, the belief that your teammate has good motives and intentions.

Assessing the trustworthiness of others helps to create a sort of long-term predictability that is especially useful in situations of high uncertainty, such as in virtual work teams.

The second strategy for developing trust is through a context of risk and interdependence.

Think of a context where the outcome is uncertain — you have to work on a project worth millions with someone you know nothing about except their job title. This context requires high trust to compensate for the uncertainty. Social ice breakers are inadequate here as there’s little risk or opportunity for trust to be “practiced”.

Thus, my argument is that popular team building activities used for co-located teams cannot simply be transferred to the online context and expected to work. Virtual teams come with extra layers of complexity and so activities should be tailored to address these complexities.

The main challenge being that the virtual work team context is perceived as extremely uncertain and risky. The current literature suggests that if you can create an activity or activities that have both trust development strategies, that is, they allow virtual team members to assess the trustworthiness of each other and practice trust in a safe environment, your virtual team would be off to a good start.

I believe that computer games could be the answer.

Find out how and why in my next blog.

Evelyn Tan: Aspiring Industrial-organisational psychologist with a keen interest in using video games for behavioural change. Msc student in Industrial/Organisational and Business Psychology at UCL.

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