Remote Team Building: Trust, Communication and Human Interaction

In a March 2013 CNBC interview, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh joined the ranks of other high-profile CEOs in speaking out against telecommuting following Marissa Mayer’s infamous work-at-home ban for Yahoo employees. Hsieh proclaimed that working remotely was counterintuitive to building a strong corporate culture, stating that Zappos encourages personal relationships outside of work to help build trust and, subsequently, improve productivity.

While those of us who support working at home like to throw around statistics (such as the fact that teleworkers are 13% more productive than their office-bound colleagues), we can all agree that building trust is difficult no matter the situation. And being physically distant from other team members — especially if you’ve never worked together before — adds complexity to the challenge.

But there are proven methods to build and improve trust. The Interaction Associates and Human Capital Institute recently found that the best way was to set team members up for success with the right “tools, resources and learning opportunities.” Other top factors include having leaders who seek input from employees before making decisions and provide information around their decision-making process.

Communication and interaction is key to this success, and there are several ways to start building and maintaining trust among teams with remote workers and workshifters:

Let the team schmooze before delving into work. I was once assigned to a team with four other members from around the globe with whom I’d never worked before. Our leader suggested that we schedule time for a virtual show-and-tell prior to our first formal meeting. We were told to create a presentation about anything in our personal lives. I’ll be honest — I thought it would be a colossal waste of time. But sharing our stories, pictures and movies via video conference about our families, dogs, pastimes and homes made us human to one another. It laid the invaluable groundwork for building a healthy and productive work relationship.

Encourage communication outside of formal meetings. In a perfect world, communication is a 50-50 thing. In the work-at-home world, it can sometimes be 10-90. Create precedence and make reaching out to co-workers a regular practice, especially if you’re the one in the office when they are at home.

Be available to one another. We’ve all worked with that person who seems to never be in their cubicle and who never answers their phone or email when we need them to. It’s unsettling, especially if you are counting on them for your team’s overall success. In short, don’t be that person. Share your schedule, plan regular check-ins and collaborations with co-workers and consider having virtual office hours once a week in which anyone can join you for a GoToMeeting video conference.

Whenever possible, use video communication to collaborate. Email is always tempting to fall back on when communicating with colleagues, and it does serve its purpose. But ideally, if you can’t be in the same room, video conferencing allows you to communicate in a more productive and human way. Besides sharing each other’s screens to collaborate on and review work, observing reactions and visual cues can really enhance the feeling of being on the same team.

Photo credit AJ Leon via Flickr

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