We build up trust in others based on our own experiences, or the recommendations of those who already have our confidence.
We place more value on our friend’s recommendation of a TV show or a dishwasher brand than an anonymous reviewer on the Internet. And why the adage is “I’ll believe it when I see it” and not “I’ll see it because I believe it.”
In a traditional work environment, we see our peers performing regularly. We know when they show up, when they go home, how long they take for lunch, and how often they’re gabbing with their peers in the breakroom.
This visual confirmation that people are “doing their job” is a panacea for some anxious managers. The belief that by merely being in the office means that they’re working can be hard to shake.
But when team members—or entire teams—go remote, attendance can no longer be a proxy for productivity. Managers must empower their employees to work more independently, trusting that best efforts are being made and judging their performance based solely on their output.
And it seems like remote work is here to stay. According to our 2021 State of Product Management Report, the desirability and willingness to work remotely and the growth of remote companies in the United States has grown by 2.8x. Of the 2,200 product managers that we surveyed, 67% chose to work remotely—across all company sizes.
However, the only way this works is when the default assumption is that people are doing their jobs and living up to their responsibilities. If team members are suspect regarding their coworkers’ commitments to the job and ability to perform without constant oversight, things might get ugly.
It doesn’t matter how many videoconferences, collaboration tools, and virtual happy hours you employ. If the foundation of your remote team isn’t built on trust, it will all come crumbling down.
In a recent webinar on building trust among remote teams, our ProductPlan team members took a deep dive into the opportunities and challenges the sudden increase in remote work has presented.
Lack of Trust = Misalignment from the Start
Working with a remote team will feel different. It’s supposed to feel different. Annie Dunham, Director of Product Management, stressed that everyone must be aware of this.
She warns that in an attempt to fill the vacuum created by a lack of in-person interaction, “people tend to fill that space with a need for control leading down the micromanagement path.”
Everyone should be aware of the consequences that come from betraying the trust between remote teams, as it can take ten times as long to rebuild it once it’s broken. It includes employers using technologies that “spy” on employee activity, which should be used sparingly and with complete transparency.
Build Trust with Remote Teams
Google believes there are five traits of successful teams. These tenets are essential to remember when establishing and maintaining a remote work culture:
- Psychological Safety: The safety to take risks and be vulnerable
- Dependability: Everyone delivers on time and meets quality expectations
- Structure & Clarity: Clear roles, plans, and goals
- Meaning: The work matters to employees
- Impact: The work matters to the world and creates meaningful change
These aren’t easy to establish under normal circumstances, but a remote setting can increase the degree of difficulty.
The communication gaps that existed in an in-person environment get magnified when the team shifts to remote work. There are limited opportunities for impromptu clarification, and people are less likely to seek guidance or more detail than when you’re all in the same place.
These can’t be magically solved, but they should be acknowledged and mitigated. “Teams that excel will see this as an opportunity for change and face this head-on,” says Agile coach Jennifer Payne.
The early stages of a remote transition are the most critical to figure out what’s working and what’s not. Don’t assume people will volunteer their opinions, either. You haven’t established a comfort level yet, so they need to feel safe to express their feelings or request modifications. Managers should be asking instead of telling when it comes to defining the new status quo.
The Foundations of Building Remote Work Trust
Creating a healthy, productive dynamic with a remote workforce doesn’t just happen. Teams must put in the work to create the culture they want, which isn’t always the case when everyone’s in the same cube farm.
Be aware, be intentional
Everyone must be aware and intentional instead of defaulting to the command and control model. “Rather than defaulting to control, look at what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’ll build the foundation as a team,” Annie says.
She specifically referenced meetings, ceremonies, standups, and the like. It’s essential to address their purpose and what people should get out of them. It stands in contrast to just instituting additional processes for the sake of process.
If things aren’t working well, there should be an openness to suggestions and change versus a rigid inflexibility toward adapting to the new situation or recognizing that how the team works have evolved.
Embrace radical candor
In a traditional work environment, the outside world fades into the background as we deal with the challenges directly in front of us. But that’s not as easy when you’re working from home, and it’s even harder when the outside world is scary, unpredictable, and chaotic.
Businesses can’t assume their employees can simply turn that off, blocking it out so they can dedicate 100% of their attention to the next sprint or customer interview. The real world seeps in, and that’s an unavoidable reality that must be directly acknowledged.
“As a leader, I believe in radical candor, and I have always strived to create an environment where my team feels safe to share their feedback and opinions,” says ProductPlan CEO Brad Wills. “If you operate from a place of authenticity and transparency, then you can facilitate an environment of trust. Teams that feel safe also tend to trust each other and are, in turn, well-positioned to step up in times of crisis.”
People need an outlet when they get frustrated. Who can they trust will take their feedback seriously and without fear of retribution?
Leaders must make workers feel heard and that there will be real consideration and follow through. Without this, they won’t confide in them, and employees won’t speak up until it’s too late. Create that safe space, reiterate it’s there, lead by example, and reward those who share.
Actively cultivate personal relationships/connections
When everyone uses their own water cooler, it’s hard to establish and maintain the “office culture” that so many companies care deeply about. If everyone is pounding out their work in a personalized bubble from home, the natural camaraderie and congeniality that comes naturally when you’re all sharing the same space can go missing.
To make up for the loss of organic personal connectivity, companies must make more time for non-work-related interactions in order to build trust among remote teams. While we might frown upon idle chit chat during an in-person meeting when there is a schedule and a time limit, allowing space for this is a good thing with distributed teams.
Instead of diving right into the meeting topic, provide some space for more casual conversation. It might help to have something in mind versus a generic “how is everyone” prompt to keep things light and harmonious.
Rather than asking how everyone’s weekend went, ask them to recommend a TV show or talk about what they had for dinner last night. It lets people share their personalities and interact with something fun.
Beyond scheduled meetings, it’s also essential to integrate some lighter interactions into the rest of the day. Reaching out to individual team members to catch up or hosting virtual events that aren’t explicitly related to the job can create stronger bonds and help span the chasm created by working apart.
At ProductPlan, we’ve set up a #pet channel on Slack, hold lighting talks, and assign Zoom coffee breaks between different employees. Coworkers see their colleagues as more than an avatar in a chat window or a distant voice in a daily standup. We build empathy and find commonalities that might otherwise go undiscovered.
Implement processes that work for everyone
For remote teams to sustainably function, a “big brother” approach isn’t viable. Requiring everyone to leave their webcams turned on, work the same exact schedule, or counting down the seconds it takes for people to respond to a Slack message isn’t helpful or productive. You hired adults, so treat them as such.
It requires checking the impulse to micromanage to mitigate the lack of direct visual supervision, and instead relying on more frequent check-ins. To make the most of these interactions, check-ins shouldn’t just be random phone calls where you ask “how’s it going?” but instead intentionally designed sessions that add value for both parties.
Allowing them to participate in designing these sessions makes sure everyone’s getting what they need out of them and staying engaged. It includes stating what you don’t want in these sessions, including wanting to avoid micromanagement.
Moreover, for those coworkers that seem to disappear for long periods, it’s key to address this directly and try and humanize things.
“When I’m speaking with an engineer with whom I’m working or collaborating, I’ll just start by saying ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m not sure what to make of all this silence, I don’t want to come across like I’m micromanaging you, can you just let me know what’s going on and here’s how that feeds into my process and why I need that information’,” says lead software engineer Sarah Schultz.
Cultivating trust among remote teams is yet another job on our already overflowing plates. It might feel natural to delay investing the time and energy required to create the dynamic and frank openness we all want from our colleagues regardless of where they’re working.
But the longer it gets put off, the more entrenched bad habits and negative emotions will be. Even if you haven’t put in the time yet, there is no time like the present to step back and evaluate how things are going. Check-in with staff to see what’s working and what’s still lacking from their perspective.
Although this was sudden and new for many organizations, remote work can work and has for quite some time in many companies. But it doesn’t happen by accident, so take the opportunity to reassess and revisit how things have gone so far, and don’t be afraid to shake things up. It will pay dividends now while also paving the way for a remote-friendly culture even when some people head back to the office.