From 0-60: Taking Teams to Virtual High Performance Fast

How can teams successfully and authentically cultivate trust within a virtual environment? In what ways should leaders approach building and sustaining trust differently with virtual teams than with those that share a workspace?

Leah Hancock is an Associate at OPG. She brings significant experience working with individuals and organizations to strengthen relationships, strategy, and systems that enable them to more effectively achieve their goals. Email Leah at lhancock@orgpg.com


Over the last few months, millions of people around the globe, made an abrupt and complete shift to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many became members of virtual teams overnight. Some teams make this transition with a durable foundation based on years of collaboration, communication, and trust-building; others do not. Most leaders, managers, and employees have not been trained for remote work, and it cannot be assumed that individuals innately possess the skills required to do so effectively.

Research asserts that trust is an essential component to organizational and team effectiveness, with employees in high-trust companies reporting 76% more engagement, 50% more productivity, and 40% less burnout than their counterparts at low-trust organizations.[i] And yet, it is challenging enough to build high-functioning, trusting teams when face-to-face. Naturally, this prompts the question: how can teams successfully and authentically cultivate trust within a virtual environment? And in what ways should leaders approach building and sustaining trust differently with virtual teams than with those that share a workspace?

Definitions of trust distill down to three components:

  • Competence, or the belief that a colleague has the ability to do the job for which they are responsible
  • Integrity, or confidence that they will keep their commitments and tell the truth
  • Benevolence, that they have your (and the team’s) best interest at heart.[ii]

A groundwork of trust enables teams to weather storms, dismiss small lapses in judgment or follow-through, self-examine and evolve their operations, and work efficiently.[iii] Teams with high trust are also more likely to allow for vulnerability in the face of uncertainty.[iv]

For leaders managing new virtual teams, the opportunity to build on “swift trust” should not be missed. Swift trust, referred to as a “presumptive form of trust,”[v] is often found in newly-formed virtual teams and is based on characteristic-based judgments rather than behavior-based judgments. Swift trust accounts for the high levels of trust that have been observed in virtual teams with little previous experience working together. It is later replaced with a degree of trust based on an assessment of past behavior, including an individual’s ability, integrity, and benevolence. While the nature of swift trust is temporary, teams demonstrating high levels of it have been observed to outperform those without.[vi]

Leaders can encourage the development of swift trust by promoting team identification and belonging at the onset of a new team coming together. Team members must understand that they have been assembled intentionally and for a shared purpose. Leaders should create opportunities for personal connection between members and model honesty and vulnerability to normalize a climate of openness and transparency.[vii]

Leaders might also consider what information they share about the team and its members even before their first interactions, using this as an opportunity to promote a sense of shared purpose, commitment, and competence.[viii] Once a team is formed, time for team members to share their backgrounds, the skills they can contribute to the group, and their preferred work style can contribute significantly to a sense of connectedness and mutual respect.[ix]

Beyond the lifespan of swift trust, there are four core components of effective virtual collaboration:

  • the right team
  • the right leadership
  • the right touchpoints
  • the right technology[x]

This article addresses the first three; the right technology is a larger subject addressed in many forums online.

Right Team: The optimal team, whether virtual or face-to-face, is the right size, has the right people in the right roles, and fosters a culture of collaboration. Virtual teams of greater than ten are more susceptible to “social loafing,” or the tendency of individuals to put in less effort when working in a group context, and communication is more likely to be negatively impacted within larger teams.[xi]

When a virtual team has an appropriate number of people whose skills fit the needs of the team, there are many ways to strengthen collaboration and a culture of trust within the group. Creating and rotating pairs or trios of members to work on challenging but achievable assignments can strengthen focus and personal connections.[xiii]Similarly, thoughtfully-selected team-building exercises can stimulate creativity while reducing biases and strengthening trust between members. Brief tours of individual workplaces can provide team members with a mental image of their colleagues’ environment and contribute to a sense of a shared experience.[xiv] Tools like virtual “expertise directories” can keep team member skill sets easily accessible and serve as a resource to facilitate dialogue about skill sharing and potential development opportunities.

Team norms support trust-building in any team but are particularly valuable for those working virtually. Norms help guide behavior, decision-making, and communication, and inform how individuals make sense of one another’s actions. Guidelines around methods of communication and their corresponding level of urgency, as well as expectations around responsiveness, are particularly valuable for remote teams. To keep norms fresh, it is recommended that teams review and revise their norms as the team evolves in an exercise that supports the renewal of a shared identity and sense of purpose.[xv]

Right Leadership: In addition to their role in facilitating the strategies above, the “right leaders” take unique approaches to managing and developing teams in virtual settings. First and foremost, leadership competencies that are valued in face-to-face environments are essential when managing remotely – clarity in strategy, communication and decision-making, emotional intelligence, compassion, and more, are all critical when helping a team transition to remote work or navigate virtual collaboration. At the same time, behavior-change might be required of some leaders; those who typically manage by walking around an office, holding open office hours, or casual drop-ins to check in with employees, will need to reconfigure their approach.

One way for leaders to build trust within their teams is to demonstrate trust themselves by offering team members some degree of autonomy and discretion in their work.[xvi] Three factors increase autonomy:

  • Clear expectations: Clear expectations refer to a mutual understanding of performance metrics, deadlines, and anticipated quality of work.
  • Recognition: Leaders should also recognize and celebrate individual and team performance or successes as a way to highlight good work, renew commitment, and boost morale.
  • Frequent and transparent communication: an ongoing commitment to transparency can be transformative for a team. It can serve to minimize rumor mill activity, name concerns or anxieties, and build multi-directional trust.

Right Touchpoints: The types of communication a team encourages also matters. Carefully facilitated virtual meetings with clear agendas and objectives can be a particularly effective way of allowing all team members to meaningfully contribute and be heard. When regularly occurring, it can be all too easy for teams to fall into the trap of running through a checklist of to-dos on these types of conference calls. Teams might benefit from rotating facilitators and note-takers, including organized activities designed to strengthen connections with one another, and collaboratively discussing substantive content such as current challenges or relevant case studies. Some teams add “structured unstructured time” at the beginning or end of meetings, which might look like six to eight minutes of open-ended space for team members to check in with one another, share personal anecdotes, and snippets of life outside of work.[xvii] When applied to remote teams, this is a way to bring the “water cooler conversations” to life virtually and mitigate feelings of isolation that might arise through physical separation.

Much of the world is participating in a large-scale, unstructured experiment of remote collaboration that will inevitably yield new findings, and countless new questions, about how teams and organizations can thrive in a virtual environment.

The more that organizations can leverage swift trust, focus on developing the right teams, encourage adaptable and transparent leadership, and implement effective virtual communication touchpoints, the more likely they will be to succeed in the remote environment.

Leah Hancock is an Associate at OPG. She brings significant experience working with individuals and organizations to strengthen relationships, strategy, and systems that enable them to more effectively achieve their goals. Email Leah at lhancock@orgpg.com



[i] (Zak, 2017)

[ii] (Grayson, 2016)

[iii] (Jarvenpaa, Shaw, & Staples, 2004)

[iv] (Ferrell, 2018)

[v] (2009, p. 245),

[vi] (Dennis, et al., 2009)

[vii] (Germain & McGuire, 2014).

[viii] (Dennis, et al., 2009)

[ix] (Ferrazzi, 2014)

[x] (Ferrazzi, 2014)

[xi] (Ferrazzi, 2014)

[xii] (Caputo & Thompson, 2009).

[xiii] (Zak, 2017)

[xiv] (Ferrazzi, 2014)

[xv] Majchrzak, Malhotra, and Rosen (2007)

[xvi] (Zak, 2017)

[xvii]HBR IdeaCast podcast (Beard, 2020)

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