7 Ways to Develop Trust on a Distributed Team

distributed team
••• Chad Springer / Image Source / Getty Images

Most small business owners have two primary desires: to become more efficient (usually by reducing operating costs) and to increase levels of success. These two things go hand-in-hand because you really can't reach success without efficiency. There are many ways that small business owners can cut costs in an effort to boost efficiency and the bottom line -- one of which is creating a distributed team in lieu of a traditional office setting.

Distributed, or virtual teams, are comprised of individuals who work in different locations by using various types of technology. With the right technology, it's possible for collaboration to happen without face-to-face contact every day, but there is one thing that has to exist on every distributed team: trust. If you don’t have trust among members of your team, you need to develop it, and fast.

Here are seven ways to develop and foster trust on your distributed team.

1. Be Transparent

When a team is comprised of a leader and subordinates — as most teams are — it’s easy to leave out information that doesn’t trickle down to the rest of the team. But this left-out information can often be the source of conflict. For example, your team surely knows what they are working toward together, but do they know why? Transparency can be as simple as sharing a goal, motivation or inspiration.

Of course, everything that goes on in a team environment doesn’t need to be passed on to every team member, but no one wants to feel manipulated.

Avoid withholding information if it will help clarify a project, provide useful background information, help get everyone on the same page or make working together easier.

2. Start Listening

Like many things in life, building trust often boils down to being able to communicate effectively. And part of good communication is listening and taking time to understand what other people are saying.

This is especially important on a distributed team when you can’t benefit from face-to-face conversations and see non-verbal cues that often makes it easier to understand what someone means.

Take time to listen and understand what your team members are saying, and ask for clarification when you need it. If you aren’t taking the time to listen and understand, you will have a difficult time inspiring them to action. Plus, listening to what is said (and unsaid) can help you further understand true employees' strengths and weaknesses.

3. Follow Through Every Time

One of the biggest fears in a team environment is that someone will drop the ball or renege on their promises, and the entire team will come crashing down. It’s a valid concern; everyone needs to carry their weight on a team, virtual or not.

Start by making it standard practice to say what you mean and mean what you say. And then do whatever it takes to fulfill your promises. If you consistently follow through, your team members will gain confidence in you and you will demonstrate what is expected.

4. Be Approachable

If you are the team leader, it’s important to make yourself approachable. Everyone wants to have a say and feel listened to, and that’s impossible if your time is off-limits.

Be accessible via email, phone, text, or any other mode of communication used by your team, and welcome direct contact.

If you are a team member, you need to be approachable, too. Be responsive when communication takes place, and make sure you are contributing as much as you can to the conversation.

5. Encourage Participation

Do you want to be a part of a dictatorship? I don’t, and I don’t know many people that do. That’s why I see teams that actually encourage teamwork thrive more than hierarchical teams.

The best teams are those with a spread of power, so give your team members a chance to contribute to the team initiatives and have ownership of their own work. Invite individual feedback, and ask general questions to give team members a chance to weigh in. Then, use the feedback provided to make changes to improve the team dynamic.

6. Recognize Effort

You created a team because you couldn’t do everything yourself in your small business, so it’s now up to you to hold your team members accountable for the role they’ve played. When things don’t go well, every team member needs to step up and take responsibility.

You should also make a point to share every success and recognize good work and dedicated effort, even when the end result is not exactly what was intended. Consistent recognition will make every team member feel appreciated, more willing to invest his or her time in the team, and help facilitate trust in you as the team leader.

7. Create a Water Cooler

Project-based meetings are important, but they usually just focus on work-related issues (as they should). And since you are located in different places, your team members can’t benefit from the sense of camaraderie that develops from chatting by the water cooler during the day. You have to create your own opportunities for social time.

Create an always-open chat area that members can pop in and out of when it suits them to say hi or leave a message for the group, or schedule regular coffee chats so team members can get to know each other and let off steam. These informal gatherings can do amazing things for developing trust. 

Once you are able to establish trust on your distributed team, you will find that the your team is more efficient in everything that it does. Keep in mind that these tips are not just for those working remotely; trust is vital is every business relationship. In fact, if you implement these practices in all of your work relationships, you will find that business success is a lot easier to achieve.