How to Build Trust and Foster a Sense of Community in Virtual Teams

With the advent of advanced technologies, anchoring the conventional work culture with the virtual team’s setup is a prevailing challenge for companies around the world.

Research reveals that over 82% of employees in key economies have felt lonely at work, and nearly half feel a more intense sense of loneliness than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only is this detrimental to employee mental health, but it also dents productivity, brings down engagement, and eventually causes attrition.

That is why team collaboration needs to be a top priority for managers today, especially those overseeing virtual teams and distributed workforces. These setups are likely to witness a breakdown in community, teamwork, and collaboration without timely intervention.

Wondering how? Let’s delve deeper.

Why Are Trust and Community in Virtual Teams So Important?

Even before COVID-19, progressive companies were turning to remote and hybrid work as an effective cost-cutting measure as well as an attractive employee benefit. Workflow automation company, Zapier, for instance, always operated on a 100% remote model. But this has now become the norm, even in sectors previously accustomed to remote work, such as financial services.

In 2021, 75% of employees were still operating as a virtual team, and 58% said their ideal work situation would be hybrid.

Yet, employees acknowledge that there can be challenges in terms of trust and communication. 40% of research participants admitted they found it difficult to achieve the quality of communication necessary. Team leaders, in particular, were under the pump to force fit interactions into virtual team setups.

This is because the interactions we take for granted in a physical office space no longer occur automatically when we are in a virtual team. There are several reasons why trust and community in virtual teams are so important.

  • Human beings are social animals: While remote and hybrid work presents undeniable benefits, they rob employees of the psychological benefits of daily team collaboration and interactions. With designated time and tools for meetings, interactions are no longer organic, and there is no sense of working in a psychologically safe “tribe” — i.e., a community.
  • Real-time team collaboration is essential for productivity: Much of the benefits of virtual teams are due to the use of asynchronous communication. It gives employees the flexibility to work at their preferred pace and hours. It also combats presenteeism. But the downside is that productive workflows often break down when team collaboration does not happen in real time. Thus, it becomes inevitable to integrate a collaboration tool that enables smooth communication among the teams on a real-time basis.
  • The lack of transparency may give rise to conflict: In a virtual team setup, it is difficult to always know what another team member is working on, and, therefore, if there is an equitable distribution of work. Employees aren’t always on top of each other’s challenges, which makes it difficult to build a sense of empathy and trust.
  • Without trust and community, employees are at risk of attrition: From this lens, virtual teams are a double-edged sword. Report after report shows that employees are ready to quit their jobs if they are forced to return to the office. Yet, a working environment that lacks close interpersonal bonds, trust, and transparency, will push team members towards quiet quitting, disengagement, and eventually resignation. In this case, collaboration can be a powerful tool to combat the risk of employee attrition. By creating an environment that fosters collaboration, organizations can increase employee engagement and job satisfaction, which can ultimately lead to lower turnover rates.

The onus, therefore, is on organizations and team leaders to intersect virtual team dynamics with the same level of community employees are used to in a physical workplace.

Read more: Are You Bringing Your 2019 Workflows Back to the Office?

3 Ways to Build Trust and Community in Virtual Teams

In 2023, organizations need to work on their virtual team-building skills so they can retain the productivity advantage initially unlocked from remote and hybrid work. This includes:

1. Build a culture of communication

An outcome-centered work environment does not mean that employees clock in, get immersed in their solo work, and tune out. Work culture should be built in a way to promote communication where interacting with other people and team collaboration is as important as getting the job done. There are several ways to do this: by embedding communication in employees’ KRAs, adopting a democratic approach to problem-solving, incorporating collaboration tools that create clear communication channels and implementing practical examples.

2. Create the right expectations

Managing and setting the right expectations is a vital part of building trust in virtual teams. For example, if employees feel that they are expected to reply to each and every email, it will create a sense of unhealthy pressure. However, there have to be implicit expectations of availability during all working hours and active participation of the workforce. To achieve this, managers need effective communication skills, the right virtual team collaboration tools, and a set of people management guidelines for hybrid work.

3. Pay attention to top-down communication

Top-down communication plays an important role in virtual teams, where water cooler chats and impromptu conversations are not possible in a virtual setup. For this reason, company newsletters, leadership town halls, announcements by managers, and even posts on professional social networks garner much more attention. Top-down communication will set the tone for how your team interacts and shares the information, as well as the confidence they have for team collaboration.

Read more: A New Chapter in the Future of Work: Part I – Nexval

Getting Started with a Positive, Productive Virtual Team Culture

The first step towards building trust and community is to understand what employees actually need. Are they happy with team structures? Do they want more or less top-down communication? Are team collaboration tools easy to use? You can gather this data through company surveys and start rolling out changes that show employees that their voices are heard and valued.

Furthermore, team leaders and the management must work together to envision the culture of belonging that they are looking to build. Document which behaviors are encouraged and which ones must be de-incentivized. Finally, make sure that everyone is empowered to communicate and collaborate effectively. Introduce a collaboration tool that helps foster healthy communication and real time collaboration between teams. Not only will it help in ensuring transparency but also in allowing for quick resolution of any issues that arise.

Understanding the Paradigm Shift in Work Culture Post-pandemic

Shedding light on the post-pandemic transition

  • How the pre and post-pandemic era has brought a change in the work culture
  • Understanding a variety of workplace models.
  • Risks involved in operating with multiple work models
  • How some employers have tried to overcome these risks and challenges to offer a hassle-free multi-model work environment to employees

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 brought about a monumental shift in the way people work. It became inevitable for the employees as well as for us, the employers, to adopt the remote and hybrid work model.

This may surprise you but the Work from Home scenario was already on the horizon even before the pandemic. According to a report, remote work has grown by 44% over the last five years, and the number of remote workers in the U.S. increased by 159% between 2005 and 2017. Some renowned organizations, particularly in the tech industry, like Zapier, Buffer, and InVision have been in a fully remote mode for several years before the pandemic. Companies like Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, also promoted remote employees since their founding.

While this digital transformation wasn’t a new discovery, it accelerated rapidly just after the pandemic hit us. As a result, remote and hybrid work models became more prevalent, leading to changes in work practices and technologies. Communication and collaboration tools such as Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams became essential in keeping remote teams connected.

This digital transformation did pose certain challenges, like communicating across time zones, socializing virtually, preventing professional isolation, protecting client data, and avoiding slacking. But it offered more than one could ever imagine.

Moreover, the pandemic led to a shift in employee priorities, with a greater emphasis on work-life balance, mental health, and wellness. It brought about a 360-degree transformation in the work culture, leading to new work practices, technologies, and employee expectations. Employers like me could save on real estate costs, hire and utilize talent globally, mitigate immigration issues and experience productivity gains while employees could enjoy geographic flexibility.

In light of this, I would like to elucidate the variety of workplace models, the risks involved, and how organizations can benefit from multiple work modes.

Understanding a variety of workplace models

When the pandemic arrived, all hands of the employers were on deck. Organizations had to iterate their game plan and adapt to a new reality where remote work became inevitable. As a result, several organizations, including mine, were observed to implement new workplace models to ensure business continuity while maintaining social distancing and other health protocols.

However, as the pandemic continued, it became evident that absolute digital transformation could have long-term benefits including greater flexibility, reduced overhead costs, and increased productivity for some employees. Therefore, many companies have decided to embrace these new models and adopt a more hybrid approach to work.

Some of the prominent workplace models that became prevalent post-pandemic are:

Remote work model: Numerous organizations have accepted remote work as a long-term solution. This model involves allowing employees to work from home or any other location outside of the traditional office environment. Remote work has become possible due to the widespread availability of technology and collaboration tools.

Hybrid work model: This model combines remote work with in-person work. Employees are allowed to work remotely part of the time and come to the office for the other part. A hybrid work model allows for flexibility while still maintaining some level of in-person interaction.

‘Flexible work hoursmodel: I observed that several companies were inclined towards the adoption of flexible work hours to allow employees to work at their own pace. This prototype involves setting flexible start and end times for work, allowing employees to choose their own work hours, and taking breaks as needed.

Co-working spaces: While co-working spaces came in handy for start-ups and sole business owners even before the pandemic, they gained immense popularity post-pandemic. These spaces offer shared working environments that allow employees from different companies to work in the same space. This model offers flexibility, low cost, and a collaborative environment for employees.

Decentralized workplace: In a decentralized workplace model, employees use digital technologies and communication tools to stay connected with their colleagues, such as video conferencing, messaging apps, and project management software. This model provides employees with greater flexibility and work-life balance, as they can avoid commuting and work in an environment that suits their individual preferences.

Overall, each model has its own advantages and disadvantages, it depends on us to choose the one that best aligns with our business goals and the needs of their employees.


Risks involved in operating with multiple work models

Operating with multiple work models can provide many benefits, such as increased flexibility, improved work-life balance for employees, and potential cost savings for employers. However, there are also several risks and challenges involved in operating with multiple work models. Some of these risks include:

Communication breakdowns: Communication in a remote or hybrid work mode can be challenging when employees work in different locations or have different work schedules. Without proper communication tools and strategies in place, misunderstandings, miscommunications, and delays can occur, leading to decreased productivity and missed deadlines.

Inconsistent work quality: When employees work under different models, it can be challenging to ensure consistent work quality and adherence to company standards. Lack of standardization can lead to confusion, errors, and customer dissatisfaction.

Security risks: With employees working from various locations and devices, the risk of cybersecurity breaches increases. Confidential information may be exposed, stolen, or compromised, leading to reputational damage and financial losses.

Difficulty in managing remote employees: Managing remote employees requires a different set of skills and strategies than managing in-office employees. Without proper management, remote workers can become disengaged, feel isolated, and lack direction.

Legal and compliance risks: Operating with multiple work models may pose legal and compliance risks, such as failure to comply with labor laws, tax laws, and regulations specific to each working model.

Operating with multiple work models offer a plethora of benefits, but it also involves risks and challenges. Organizations must carefully consider the risks and develop strategies to mitigate them to ensure that employees remain engaged, productive, and aligned with the company’s goals and values.

Measures taken by employers to mitigate these risks and offer a hassle-free multi-model work environment to employees

Employers have recognized the potential risks and challenges associated with a multi-model work environment, including decreased productivity, reduced collaboration, and poor work-life balance. To overcome these challenges and create a hassle-free work environment, employers have implemented several strategies.

  • Implementing flexible scheduling options, such as part-time work and job-sharing, enabling employees to manage their work and personal responsibilities more effectively.
  • Introducing remote work arrangements to provide employees with the flexibility to work from anywhere, allowing them to balance their work and personal commitments.
  • Investing in technology to facilitate seamless communication and collaboration, including tools like video conferencing, messaging apps, and project management software.
  • Providing training and support to employees to help them adapt to new work environments and technologies, including training on cybersecurity and remote work best practices.
  • Establishing clear communication channels to keep employees informed about changes to work arrangements, company policies, and other important information.

Employers have sought feedback from employees to understand their concerns and suggestions for improving the multi-model work environment, which has helped them to address issues quickly and make improvements where necessary. Overall, by implementing these strategies, employers can create a hassle-free multi-model work environment that benefits both employees and the organization.

Decoding the Virtual Workplace Culture

Covid-19 caused unprecedented turbulence that no one was prepared for. Especially in the business sector, pandemic lockdowns turned organizational structures upside down. Being an entrepreneur, I too felt the effect of pandemic on my business and the urgent need to take strategic measures that could ensure its seamless operations. The advent of the ‘Work from Home’ model implementation was a great breakthrough in the contemporary work setup. While the virtual workplace culture became the low-hanging fruit during the pandemic, it posed several challenges for both employers and employees in its smooth execution, like proper infrastructure setup and maintaining optimum productivity and security.

As the lockdowns were eased and employees started attending offices on some days of the week, an accentuated work model was required to take the charge. By the end of 2021 most business sectors particularly with large contingent of white collar workers had seen a paradigm shift in their working model with remote working being the norm and occasional office visits for meeting and brainstorming being the exception. In our case as I write this blog that percentage is as high as 95% remote workers and less than 5% regularly working from office.

Several surveys state that there was a rapid increase in the number of hybrid-working employees looking for flexible work arrangements, from 13% to 24% in just four months of 2022. Furthermore, 84% of the workforce who were working remotely during the pandemic are now more comfortable working under the hybrid model.

According to a recent study, 63% of the high-growth firms preferred the ‘Productivity everywhere’ model. Moreover, 85% of the working staff stated that they can be effective anywhere and intend to remain with their current employer if they provided flexible work arrangements.

Source: Owl Labs

The above facts and figures indicate that employees are more inclined towards working under the hybrid model. Understanding the same, we have pulled out all the stops in providing a productive and safe working environment to our employees.

However, the remote and hybrid work model induced the onboarding of employees from different geographical locations and it became inevitable to implement a robust Diversity and Inclusion model in the evolved boundary less, virtual workplace.

Diversity & Inclusion in the Boundary less Workplace

A boundary less workplace refers to an organization that transcends traditional hierarchical structures and physical boundaries to foster collaboration, innovation, and agility. An inclusive workplace ensures that our entire workforce feels valued, respected, and supported regardless of their backgrounds.

I believe that when an organization embraces diversity and promotes inclusivity, it can leverage the unique strengths, perspectives, and experiences of its employees to drive innovation, creativity, and growth. And, organizations that lack these practices often struggle to build trust and create a sense of belonging among their employees. This can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and decreased productivity.

To foster diversity and inclusion in our boundaryless workplace, we went the extra mile to establish clear diversity and inclusion policies and goals that align with our organization’s mission and values. We thrived on:

      • Providing training and resources to help employees understand and respect different perspectives and cultural backgrounds
      • Creating a culture of openness and transparency, where employees are encouraged to speak up and share their ideas and concerns
      • Building diverse teams that bring together individuals with different backgrounds, skills, and experiences
      • Encouraging employees to embrace flexibility and adaptability, (for example, promoting flexible work arrangements) which are essential qualities in a boundaryless workplace
      • Celebrating diversity and recognizing the contributions of all employees, regardless of their backgrounds

Overall, a diverse and inclusive workplace is critical for success in a boundaryless workplace, where collaboration, communication, and innovation are essential. By promoting diversity and inclusivity, we envisioned fostering a culture of trust, respect, and belonging that enabled our employees to work together effectively and achieve their goals.

Decentralized Global Workforce and Larger Talent Pool

To accentuate the hybrid work model, a model that is distributed across multiple locations around the world and operates independently from a centralized headquarters was required. That is when the decentralized global workforce model stepped in.

It offered significant benefits to us and other organizations as they could acquire talent from around the world, while improving their diversity, flexibility, scalability, and competitiveness, ultimately leading to greater success and growth.

With a global workforce collaborating in a virtual workplace, corporates can tap into a broader range of talent from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. This enables them to find the best fit for specific roles, regardless of location.

Additionally, a decentralized global workforce increases flexibility and agility. With employees located around the world, organizations can operate around the clock, taking advantage of different time zones and accommodating different work styles. This can lead to faster turnaround times, increased productivity, and improved customer service.

However, managing a decentralized global workforce can pose certain challenges to employers. For example, communication can be more complex due to language barriers, cultural differences, and geographic distances. It can also be challenging to build a cohesive organizational culture when employees are spread across different locations.

Technology – a cornerstone of the evolved working model

Undoubtedly, technology has played a significant role in enabling a smooth transition to a decentralized global workforce. Advances in digital communication tools, collaboration platforms, and cloud-based software have made it easier than ever before for employees to work together from different locations and time zones.

One of the most significant contributions of technology is the rise of video conferencing and online collaboration tools. These tools allow teams to communicate face-to-face in real time, regardless of their location. Video conferencing has significantly reduced the need for travel, in turn, saving time and money for organizations. Cloud-based tools like project management software, document-sharing platforms, and customer relationship management systems can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection. This enables teams to collaborate on projects in a virtual workplace and access critical information regardless of their physical location.

Another way technology has facilitated a smooth transition is by providing remote access to company resources. Virtual private networks (VPNs) and other remote access tools allow employees to securely access company networks and data from anywhere in the world. This eliminates the need for employees to be physically present in the office to access critical systems and resources.

All in all, technology has played a critical role in enabling a smooth transition to a decentralized global workforce. By providing digital communication tools, collaboration platforms, cloud-based software, and remote access to company resources, technology has made it easier for employees to work together from different locations and time zones, increasing productivity and efficiency for organizations.

Final Words

The virtual workplace culture has gained significant momentum in recent years and is likely to continue to grow in the future. With the increasing availability of technological tools and the changing attitude towards remote work, more and more employers are in the race to adopt a decentralized global workforce.

I agree that this new model of work presents its own set of challenges, such as communication barriers, data security risks, and the need for effective management. But you cannot ignore the benefits of a virtual workplace culture, including increased flexibility, access to a larger talent pool, and improved productivity. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, it is likely that boundary less workspaces with flexible work arrangements will become the norm rather than the exception, requiring organizations to continue to adapt to this new reality.