The virtual team: how do you maintain trust and cohesion between co-workers?

What happens to trust, social cohesion and sharing when people are virtual working, without being able to speak to each other directly?

There have been plenty of studies on this subject and a collection has been put together by the Advanced Workplace Institute, to provide companies with some guidelines on how to best deal with the need for some, if not all, of their staff to do smart working, during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

One study highlighted six main conclusions:

  • Remote working has a very strong impact on communication and when conflicts arise, they create negative consequences for team performance.
  • For virtual working to be a success, everyone involved must collaborate in order to find the most efficient mode of operating. As happens in the office, for each member of the team, you have to assess and factor in not only personal differences, but also possible difficulties tied to non-office environments (for example, an uncomfortable workstation, kids at home or the time chosen for a meeting).
  • The strongest, most productive virtual teams are the ones based on stable social cohesion, where people feel “psychologically safe” collaborating, expressing themselves and relying on others.
  • The common success factor is always trust, followed by communication.
  • Anyone can become a leader when the team shifts from reality to virtual. A strong personality can be the right lever to steer the group towards achieving goals.

The importance of trust in team growth

According to various studies, there is a direct correlation between trust, meaning also the possibility of relying on others, and work group efficiency which becomes even more intense in virtual environments.

Trust between co-workers affects attitudes like commitment, satisfaction, efforts and group cohesion, information processing like sharing and learning skills and, to a lesser extent,  performance of individual activities or entire projects.

The impact is much stronger where the team decision-making process is centralized, compared to groups where individual members operate independently.

How to create trust (and maintain a high level) in a virtual team

According to some studies, virtual teams work more smoothly when every interaction is logged, in the form of emails, chat transcripts or video call recordings.

This derives from a lack of trust towards others, for example, over how conversations are reported back to third parties.

A possible guideline for creating (or improving) trust is offered by  Hermann, a globally operative human resources company. There are four steps to follow:

  1. Be clear and concise to avoid anxiety and confusion. This means establishing precise roles, priorities, aims and necessary tools.
  2. Adhere to operational procedure based on the personal requirements of the team and the objectives to be achieved. Hard-and-fast principles must be included, accompanied by other operational procedures that can change in time.
  3. Remember that co-workers are people and not just elements of a group. Even if you cannot always speak face-to-face, it is important to schedule video meetings and make time for a few minutes of general social interaction in them. Don’t forget to include direct channels between all members and the team leader for feedback, proposals and resolution of conflict.
  4. Be flexible and open to new ideas from any member of the work group. The different location may be a source of inspiration to be encouraged for some members.

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