3 Ways to Cultivate Trust in Remote Teams

Develop & cultivate your remote team

How much does your remote team really trust you? A study published in Organisation Science in 2010 identified trust in remote teams begins at a much lower level than with co-located teams. The leaders challenge therefore is to build genuine trust with and between all team members.


The recent novel coronavirus pandemic revealed new insights for the corporate world. For example, many organisations quickly discovered large numbers of their employees can work effectively from remote locations. There is also a substantive chance this revelation will change the way we operate our businesses.


The grand saviour for a lot of organisations in the current environment has been technology. We have technology that allows our people to log into the systems they need remotely – to access the information they need and connect with the people they need to in order to do their job. However, while the Gods of technology, aka your IT department, have allowed us to work in isolation, the challenge of leading remote teams isn’t quite the same as leading co-located groups. Many challenges are the same. After all there is still a need to develop the skills of the people in the team, the need to ensure the team’s activities are aligned with the organisational goals. The fact is managing and leading remote teams raises a new set of challenges beyond those we experience with co-location.


A key challenge in leading remote teams is the difficulty associated with building trust. How do we build trust? Usually through regular interaction. We get to know each other, we discover similarities, we build relationships and through that we build trust. Open plan offices and break-out areas with fancy coffee machines and communal tables encourage the kind of interactions we need to achieve this. Remote teams however are not afforded that comfort. You can’t see what your team is doing throughout the day. They can’t see what each other is doing and, most critically, they can’t see what you are doing.

Three strategies you could employ for building trust are:

1) Proactively build interpersonal trust

Think about the people you know and the people you trust in your lives. How have those relationships been built? We tend to like people who:

  • Are similar to us
  • Pay us compliments
  • Work with us towards a common goal

What you might notice about this list is that it has little to do with the professional side of our lives and more to do with the personal side. We begin to trust people when we make personal connections with them so leaders need to leverage that.

Incorporate a ‘Take 5’ activity into your online meeting agenda. This provides for five minutes at the start of the meeting for people to talk about what’s been happening in their lives, both professionally and personally.

2) Communicate with predictability

Quality of communications with remote teams is important but what we don’t tend to realise is there is something else equally critical, predictability. In one study of globally distributed teams, researchers found teams that lacked trust tended to have unpredictable communication patterns, very often with just one or two team members accounting for the bulk of the communications. Conversely, that same study found that high-trust teams had communication patterns which were regular and predictable with all team members communicating more equally.

Set your standard communications for regular and predictable times and make sure everyone in your team knows what you’re planning to communicate.

Encourage your team to share their feelings and chat informally whenever they can but also provide the platforms for them to do that. Do they have access to instant messaging platforms or video conferencing applications? If so, encourage them to use it.

3) Align your espoused theories and your theories-in-use

There is nothing particularly complicated about this, espoused theories are what we say we’re going to do and theories-in-use are what we actually do so the golden rule here is:

Tell people what you’re going to do and then make sure you do it.

Be aware, this rule extends beyond your activities. Naturally you should ensure you perform the tasks you say you will perform but you also need to tell people how you will behave and then follow through on that promise. I have seen many trusting relationships crumble because leaders tell people their door is always open and then get aggressive when people ‘interrupt them all the time’. Let your remote people contact you as often as they need to in a safe environment where they know they will be met with patience and understanding.

Trust may take longer to build in remote teams than it does with co-located teams but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible, or that it isn’t worth the effort.
When remote teams have trust, relationships are stronger, people are more productive and job satisfaction levels increase substantially. Trust is never going to build itself, it needs action and reinforcement to move it forward. The job of leaders is not to control people, it’s to build great teams. All leaders therefore have a responsibility to their teams to focus their efforts on building genuine, trusting relationships. The rewards are limitless.


O’Leary, M.B., & Mortensen, M., Organization Science, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2010
O’Leary, M.B., et al., MIS Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4, 2014


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