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.
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.
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.