Internet and communications technology (ICT) has revolutionized reporting structures, in particular in globalized and regionalized organizations where time and space constraints are a challenge.  Cooperation is now achieved in the digital realm via the internet, resulting in a decentralized, flatter organizational team structure. Surveys suggest that at least two-thirds of the workforce partake in some sort of virtual teaming within their organization (Germain, 2011). Training, selecting and socializing workers in these new tech environments is challenging and important, particularly in developing trust without the face-to-face contact.

I previously touched on the virtualization and the impacts of technology on the workplace. Virtual work is loosely defined as the ability to allow people to work independently using technology. Virtualization has yielded benefits such as cost savings, when Hewlett-Packard adopted early on in 1999, $800,000 per year in compliance costs and another $200k in avoided costs and faster cycle times (Germain, p. 30).

The maximization of effectiveness for virtualizing teams requires trust and is the greatest challenge to organizations. Trust is a difficult build as the traditional methods are out the window. There is no hierarchy. Communications saturation is limited by lack of body language, facial expressions, and close proximity. Trust is so necessary it has positive correlations with positive communications, leadership, and adaptation to change, problem-solving and complexity.

Without trust, teams are less likely to share ideas and information, leading to poorer performance. The irregularity and unpredictability lead to defensive reasoning and has impacts on the vision for a learning organization. Unless people are willing to be vulnerable and open with each other, there is no belief of dependability and risk increases because supportive behaviors cannot be predicted. Thus, collaboration is out the window because of the doubt and perceived self-interest in others – there is no positive idea of reciprocity. Risk-taking is also diminished because of defensiveness.

Trust is also necessary for leadership and influence within the trusting relationships. It is built over time and can be lost in a moment. There are two-forms of interpersonal trust: Affect-based and Cognitive-based.

Affect-based is the establishment of an emotional connection.

Cognitive-based has the perception of competence, dependability, and reliability.

Swift Trust – In virtual short-term team connections, some relationship establishment is necessary to allow for effective work structure right away. To develop cooperation and allow sharing of information, a feeling of “we” or “us’ is needed. To establish Swift Trust, the initial communication of the team is important and the linkages in the prior experience that each member brings to the table.

Regular communication is the best way to maintain trust and team cohesion.  Generation gaps have different ways to approach technology and communication as younger demographic types have earlier adoption rates and trust ‘more readily’ in virtual forms of communication. The sense of immediacy developed in the early adopters can be managed by ensuring tasks and deliverable are focussed and have elements of motivation.

When trust is a priority and established, behaviors that are a part of ‘organizational citizenship‘ may emerge. These are roles beyond the job description and may include, helping others beyond work hours, thinking outside the box to solve problems, ensuring projects are well supported by the team.

Because understanding is difficult in virtual cross-functional teams, to avoid conflict:

  • Work must be delivered as promised
  • Communications must be clear
  • Collective identity or the ‘we’ factor should be established
  • Admit mistakes and create safe conditions for expression
  • Allow for learning from the other team members
  • Positive feedback in messaging and work tasks

Establishing a structure, strategy or templates to manage the virtual team environment will assist in the success of the outcomes. These include:

  • Sharing introductions
  • Time management
  • Feedback mechanisms
  • Communications issues
  • Conflict guidelines
  • Task status and completion

High trusting teams lead to higher performance and greater commitment. Build trust early on and maintain through clear ground rules and explicit communication using the ways found above to ensure your success.

Germain, M.-L. (2011). “Developing trust in virtual teams.” Performance Improvement Quarterly 24(3): 29–54.


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