Trust means different things to different people. According to Speed of Trust* by Stephen M.R. Covey, trust boils down to having confidence in a person’s character and competence. Character is composed of integrity and intent and competence is composed of credibility and results.  

As Patrick Lencioni explains in his book Five Dysfunctions of a Team, trust is the foundation for functional teams because it impacts everything else. It is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, which requires getting to know each other, understanding each other’s standards and values, recognizing each other’s strengths and weaknesses as well as giving and receiving constructive feedback. 

Trust also means that team members must be vulnerable: admitting mistakes, addressing frustrations and making apologies to maintain a healthy team atmosphere and move toward a solution.

When there is an absence in trust you might observe things like team members concealing mistakes and weaknesses, not asking for help or constructive feedback, withholding information, jumping to negative conclusions, failing to recognize what others bring to the team’s success, wasted time and energy, grudges, dreading meetings, low morale and attrition.

Alternatively, when team members extend and foster trust, it becomes psychologically safe to admit weaknesses and mistakes, encourage questions and feedback, give each other the benefit of the doubt, utilize each other’s skills and experiences, focus on important issues, offer and accept apologies and look forward to team collaboration.

Here are four ways to build trust on remote teams:

1. Create a sense of unity
2. Promote open communication
3. Be responsible and reliable
4. Foster personal connection

Creating a Sense of Unity

Creating a sense of unity is about recognizing that you are all dependent on each other and that “everyone’s in the same proverbial boat” – that boat being COVID 19 and the forced transition to remote work. The team’s success reflects on every individual.

To help create a sense of unity it is important to give each other the benefit of the doubt, which requires believing something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either. Even if you don’t believe something good about a person, get curious! Recognize you are making a negative assumption and check in to determine if that assumption is factually accurate or not. 

In addition, creating a sense of unity requires having a common purpose with goals, tools and expectations – paving a path to success. This might include progress-tracking apps like Trello, Slack, Asana, JIRA, or Basecamp. These not only serve as a motivational and accountability tool, they help manage workflow and keep the whole team on the same page even when you are working in different locations. MS Teams and Google Drive (both supported by CU Boulder’s Office of Information Technology, are also good collaboration tools.   

Finally, be sure to point out the contributions each team member makes, how team members’ attributes complement each other and the role they play in the team’s outcomes.

Promote Open Communication

Communication among remote teams is different from when the team is in the same physical location. Open communication is paramount: use appropriate communication tools, establish communication protocols and use video for team meetings.

It is important that the team is intentional about choosing communication tools and establishing how it will use them. Having too many communication methods can become chaotic and make it hard to stay focused, turning tools that are supposed to save time and increase productivity into distractions that actually reduce productivity. As we wrap up week ten of remote work, it might be time to reassess how the tools you are using are working for you.  

The antidote to communication overwhelm is simply giving each tool or platform a specific purpose.** Instead of leaving it up to each person’s preference, work as a team to set up some guidelines. For instance:

  • designate MS Teams for live chatting or urgent conversations 
  • use email for messages that aren’t pressing
  • organize MS Teams channels by content.  

You might consider sorting the tools by asynchronous communications (back and forth exchanges that happen as schedules allow) and synchronous communications (a live conversation happening in real time).

For example: asynchronous communications might include email, updates in MS Teams Channels or updates on project management platforms that allow each person to read and reply at their convenience. Direct messaging (aka instant messaging) might also be appropriate unless your team determines that it is better suited for synchronous communication. In the end, when choosing tools for asynchronous communications think about methods that are best suited for issues and conversations that are NOT time sensitive. 

On the other hand, synchronous communication requires two or more people agreeing to communicate using the same method at the same time. Live chat, video calls, online voice calls and telephone calls are the most common examples. This type of communication can be in writing, but may also be voice to voice or face or face (via video conferencing). These methods are the best option when things need to happen more quickly, when it’s important to ask questions and get immediate answers or to allow participants to bounce ideas off each other and get active feedback.

Having a plan for how to communicate in different situations avoids wasted time, frustration and missed connections.

Using video to connect with team members and make eye contact is also imperative. I recommend daily huddles (even if only for a few minutes to check in and see each other) and regularly scheduled team meetings at least once a week.  

Be Responsive and Reliable

Much of the conflict we see in the Ombuds Office is rooted in ineffective or nonexistent communication. Mistakes and misunderstandings are even more likely when we are not communicating in-person. This is why over-communicating, being responsive and being reliable are so important. People need to know what to expect and when to expect it. 

Develop good communication habits

When working remotely we are more inclined to rely on written communication. One of the biggest pitfalls of written communication is its susceptibility to being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Without visual and verbal cues like facial expression, body language, intonation and other signals we use to determine meaning, messages can sometimes come across as terse, angry or rude when they weren’t meant to be. There are simply fewer cues. Interestingly, research shows friends are no better than strangers in identifying tone and emotion in email messages.

Tip 1: Clarify and keep your cool. It is worth taking the time to review each message before sending it off and perhaps writing a little more than you might be inclined to — over communicating — just to make sure your meaning is as clear as possible.  

Also, be aware of cultural differences when it comes to communication styles, personality, approaches to conflict and leadership. If something is offensive or off-putting, ask more questions and clarify before drawing conclusions   

If appropriate, use emojis and GIFs from time to time to help humanize, clarify or lighten up the tone of a message. How and when you use these will of course depend on your department culture and what is or isn’t considered professional.

Tip 2: Focus on transparency. It is easy to miss new developments when you are not around each other all day every day. Find a way to check in frequently and update team members when there is progress or decisions occur. More importantly, make sure team members understand why things happen. Share details and solicit input. This offers valuable opportunities for members to add their own experience. Keep the team invested in success and help everyone learn from each other.   

Tip 3: Be consistent. Being reliable is more than just showing up when you say you will or getting things done on time. It requires showing up in the same way regardless of the situation, including difficult situations. Make sure people can rely on you to respond consistently when there is conflict, issues, challenges, etc.

Use calendaring and schedule sharing tools

Calendaring or schedule-sharing tools make it easy for team members to keep each other updated with their availability. When team members aren’t all in the same location — especially when you may be working different hours or working with people in different time zones — special care needs to be taken to keep track of when people are available and what’s getting done, especially for projects that require contributions from multiple people. Sharing online calendars or schedules, posting updates about availability and time off, are good practices especially when planning team events and activities. 

Commit to regular contact 

Be intentional about connecting. Whether it’s daily or semi-weekly check-ins, shared status updates, or collaborating within a project management platform, regular communication drives motivation and accountability and shows investment in the team. When we are all in an office, getting to know our co-workers is automatically built into the environment. We spend most of our week together: working side-by-side, perhaps eating lunch together or taking breaks and walks together, commiserating over tough projects and chatting around the proverbial water cooler. Teammates are bound to get to know each other personally to some extent.

When you are working remotely, that is not the case, and you have to be intentional about connecting. Try some of these:

1. Make space at meetings for casual conversation. Better yet, schedule informal social gatherings (e.g., Friday happy hours, Wednesday coffee hour, etc.) 

2. Start each meeting with a question from 20 questions to ask instead of “How are you doing?” by Elizabeth Weingarten (April 10, 2020) before diving into work.  

3. Create a virtual water cooler. Reserve an online space for sharing non-work-related and just-for-fun content. For example, a place to share music, shared interests, weekend plans, funny (yet, appropriate) TikToks, recipes, etc. Having a separate space prevents work distractions and reduces the feeling of distance between team members – creating a sense of community. This might come in the form of a MS Teams Channel, a chat room, blog, Facebook group – anything that represents a virtual water cooler.   

4. Celebrate Successes. When you’re working alone from a home office, you might feel disconnected from your co-workers or even feel like your work goes unacknowledged. This feeling of isolation is preventable if the whole team makes an effort to recognize each other’s accomplishments and point out good work getting done, both at the individual and group level—even if it’s only a quick shout out on MS Teams or a thank-you email. There’s nothing that energizes a team more than feeling that they worked together to accomplish something.

I hope this helps you.

By: Liz Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office

*The University of Colorado Boulder’s Organizational Employee Development Team offers “Speed of Trust” workshops for teams. If you are interested in learning more about them, please contact Lauren Harris. You may also purchase the FranklinCovey All Access Pass to watch it online. More information about the all access pass is available on the CU Boulder HR/Employee learning webpage.

**For guidance on selecting appropriate communication methods, check out my March 29, 2020 blog post at Ombuzz, the University of Colorado Ombuds blog, which provides practical strategies to navigate conflict, improve communication, and sustain relationships on campus.