Building trust when working remotely

Building Trust Remotely

The coronavirus outbreak has forced many people to work remotely over the last couple of weeks, so the topic of distributed work has been a huge topic of conversation online. There's tons of blog posts being written, webinars are being held, and the hashtag #remotework has trended on Twitter.

One frequent topic I see being discussed is the idea of building and maintaining trust when working remotely. I was listening to a webinar yesterday and someone asked for tips on managing a remote team. The expert on the topic relied, "you need to build trust" and then proceeded to offer wildly generic advice.

I thought this answer was woefully inadequate, especially coming from an expert on remote work. This caused me to reflect on how I would respond to the question.

In the rest of this post I will give my best response on how to build trust when working remotely. It will be as tactical and actionable as possible. I will do my best to avoid generic nonsense.

Why does trust break down when working remotely?

The first thing we should quickly discuss is why people feel like the concept of "trust" is an issue at all when working remotely. By all indications, people seem to feel this pain more than those in the office. At least it's discussed more frequently.

Why?

I'd argue this discussion around trust happens when people work remotely because of two key reasons:

  1. The office provides a fast feedback loop that is reinforced through observation. Your boss may "trust" you more if he/she can see that you are sitting in front of your computer. When you work remotely, you have fewer data points that you can process, which can erode trust if it's not managed correctly.
  2. When working remotely, it's tougher to bond on a personal level with your coworkers. This is not because this is impossible when working remotely. It's because there's a gravitational pull in the other direction. When you are in the office, it's really easy to grab lunch with a coworker and talk about the weekend plans, etc.

A simple framework for trust at work

Trust is defined as, "firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something." I find this definition to be unhelpful on a practical level, so I've created my own way to think about building and maintaining trust at work.

My theory is that trust has three factors, with one denominator (ARRT)

Trust at Work

1.) Ability

Is the person skilled in their domain? Do you trust their ability to execute on a given project at work?

Growing up, I played soccer all the time. It was easy to trust someone else if they were skilled at what they do. These skills had constraints thought. Someone who was great at defense may not be an effective goal-scorer.

2.) Reliability

The next component is reliability. Put simply, does the person do what they said they would? In a Monday morning staff meeting, if a coworker says they will accomplish a certain project by a particular date, do they do it? 

I'd think of reliability on a sliding scale. No one is perfect in this category, but the higher degree of confidence, the most someone is likely to trust you.

3.) Rapport

The third variable is rapport. How well do you know the people that you work with on a personal basis? You don't need to be best friends with the people that you work with, but can you empathize with their position or outlook? Can you put yourself in their shoes?

My favorite quote on rapport is by Abraham Lincoln:

"I don't like that man. I must get to know him better."

This short quote perfectly illustrates the need to build rapport with others. It breaks down the barriers to a trusting relationship.

4.) Time

The final piece is time. I see time as the denominator that impacts the other variables listed above. Spending more time with people can help you build rapport with them. It can help you understand their ability. It can also help you see how reliable they are.

How to build trust remotely?

If you are trying to build a trusting relationship with someone remotely, I'd think about your relationship through the lens of the framework introduced earlier.

For example, you may work with someone else who is skilled at what they do, but you don't trust them because they may not be reliable (at least from your perspective).

Spend a few minutes to mentally "map" the deficiencies that may exist in your relationships with coworkers.

In the sections below, I will outline specific strategies for increasing a particular "trust variable" based on the formula.

1.) Increasing Ability

A lot of the legwork around ability should happen before you decide to hire someone. If you don't have clear expectations around someone's role and what they will be doing on a daily basis, you may struggle here.

I've seen on many occasions that people question someone's ability, when in reality it's an issue with ambiguity around someone's role.

In his book, High Output Management, Andy Grove talks about ability vs. motivation as levers for improving performance. The only way to increase ability is through some form of training. This can be done personally and/or with support from the company.

I wish I had better advice for this section.

2.) Increasing Reliability

I do not consider myself to be the most reliable person, mostly because I easily forget things. The only way I've found to counteract this gravitational pull is to write things down and share them with coworkers, so I can be held accountable for what I say I will do.

For example, here at Friday, we share our weekly priorities on Monday morning. It's written down and shared publicly with the group, so it can be easily referenced over time. If I don't live up to what I said I would do, I can be held accountable when the end of the week rolls around.

At work, many people will say they will do something, but there's no check or balance as the conversation evaporates into thin air. If you want to become more reliable, start by writing down expectations.

3.) Increasing Rapport

If you'd like to build a better relationship with someone you work with, there's a few approaches you can take here:

  1. Take and share a personality test with your coworkers. This serves as an excellent conversation starter and helps people better understand each other.
  2. Create and share a user manual for working with you - this user manual functions similarly to a personality test and provides "breadcrumbs" on how to work better with others.
  3. Schedule a 1-1 call - this can be formal like a 1-1 meeting, or it can be informal. If you have remote teammates, you want to make sure the people you work with do not feel like "words on a screen." Your coworkers are not bots, they are people!
  4. Schedule a "coffee-shop coworking session" - oncee a week, jump on a video call with your coworkers. Shoot the breeze. Get work done. Do what you would do if you were all working together from a coffee shop. It sounds crazy, but this simple activity works well if you are trying to build rapport.

4.) Increasing Time?

In the framework above, I mentioned that time is the common denominator to building trust. Oddly enough, time can help improve or decrease trust. For example, if someone is unreliable, over time you will collect more data to back up this notion.

I'd encourage you not to think of time here as a series of dates, but instead, the sheer amount of hours you spend getting to know someone. For example, remote company meetups can be a wonderful way to bond with coworkers and establish build a trusting relationship. If you are able to meet up in person a couple times a year, this can go a long ways to help!

In conclusion

Building trust as a remote team takes time and effort. I hope this framework provides a quick way of thinking about building trust, even when you are apart!