Virtual work during the pandemic has changed how we think about building high-performing teams, creating connections, and maintaining trust in our colleagues. For some companies and leaders, the response has been more oversight and monitoring of employees which tends to erode trust and innovation further, in a time when those qualities are needed most.
So what can we do? After over a year of remote work for many, whether coming back to in-person work, staying remote, or some combination of the two, it's clear something more will be required to adapt to the speed of change and uncertainty.
One of the biggest questions we’ve had from clients over the past year is “how do we help our teams connect and build trust in the virtual work environment?” and recently “how do we connect and build trust now that we are back in the office after a year of remote work?” This is really at the heart of the work that we do – it’s about human connection and building trust. So we should have a pretty good answer, right?
Here’s our answer – we’ll get straight to it. It’s difficult. It takes commitment and intention - and it is so worth it. Worth it to your business and for your people.
Our founders, Erik and Larry, recently had a conversation about just that issue:
If you had a team where every member was highly motivated and committed to the company pre-covid, it may have been not too difficult to maintain trust in your team. For most teams though, pandemic work meant a lot of uncertainty, changes among team members, and for many people, it's easy to hide and disconnect in a virtual work environment.
We find that for virtual work to be effective - and we're not talking about the day-to-day tasks - we're talking about high-performing teams who need to be innovative, are working in uncertain environments, and need to collaborate at a high level-- what's required takes significant intention and a willingness to have continuous hard conversations.
- High Level of Trust
A high level of Trust is a pillar of high-performance teams and is difficult in any scenario. In any time of uncertainty, trust often erodes quickly. For many organizations, that has been true particularly over this past year – the uncertainty and remote work environment have reduced trust in many organizations. The BBC suggests that trust in our colleagues has eroded significantly over this past year. From the article:
“Trust is built by spending time together, not necessarily around work-related tasks. We form and sustain social bonds this way, expressing verbal and nonverbal communication in ways that convey understanding, empathy and shared concern. There’s no way endless Zoom calls can replace the depth and quality of in-person human interaction.”
-Scott Schieman, Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto
To get full commitment in a virtual work environment, you need a high level of trust going in. One way to do that is to have an in-person team bonding experience designed not just as a team-building exercise, but as a real impactful time to connect deeply as humans.
To generate that level of trust solely in a virtual environment is much more difficult, though not impossible. One thing we’ve seen is that it takes more effort and more specific intention around generating trust and connection consistently.
A key to generating trust is ensuring that the team is highly aligned and committed to the same desired goals and outcomes.
In a typical environment, alignment conversations may intentionally happen only a few times per year and be reiterated through daily actions and connections.
We’ve found that those alignment conversations need to happen constantly in a virtual environment.
- How you show up as a leader
Perhaps the most important piece is to have a high level of awareness as a leader. How are you showing up for your people? As a leader, are you creating an environment that inspires them to step in?
Are you managing the mood of the team? Is your team aligned around a particular purpose that they have all authentically committed to?
The most important thing you can do to generate/develop trust in any work environment is ensure over and over that your team feels and sees that you are as committed to their success and wellbeing as much (or more) as you are your own. In a real, authentic way.
If they don’t feel that on the front end, it’s going to be really hard to create that connection, conversation, and alignment in a virtual environment.