The ultimate guide on how to establish trust within a virtual team

Working with a virtual or hybrid team needs much more trust to be present for the team to work together effectively. In fact eight out of ten of our club members have been concerned at some point during lockdown about how they are going to lead and manage their virtual team. A common factor that I’ve noticed while talking to them is that they don’t know how to generate trust with their teams. After all, it's a lot easier to generate trust when everyone is sitting in the same room. Those snippets of conversation over coffee or 'water-cooler' moments really do help cement trust in a team. They are struggling not only to trust work is getting done while having a virtual team. But also to help build that trust within the team across all levels of their firms.

In this fragment of our Virtual Workshop “Leading a hybrid team”, which we ran for club members and other small accountancy firm owners, I go through the changing elements that make establishing and maintaining trust harder with virtual teams, and what you can do as a leader to establish trust within your virtual or hybrid team.

Establishing and maintaining trust is harder with a virtual team

Less communication

Let’s face it. Establishing trust in a virtual team is more challenging now because of the physical distance between people. Working in a virtual environment means that we only rely on a camera (and only if it’s on!) to get all the social cues we used to get from daily, in-person, social interactions.

Take Ashley, our Growth Specialist at the Club. Ashley has got the best smile in accountancy. I defy anybody else to have a better smile than Ashley in accountancy. However, as soon as Ashley goes into thinking mode, he stops smiling. Because we have less context, and social cues working virtually, the second his expression gets more serious, my mind goes: ‘Ashley is upset’, when the reality is that he’s just thinking. Some people are naturally bouncy and happy all the time, and when they’re expression or attitude changes you automatically assume there’s something wrong with them. Understanding these subtleties in human behaviour can be trickier when your team is working from home.

Easier for misunderstandings to take root

When leading your virtual team, you actually got to be really good at checking out the misunderstandings that might be taking place. When we are not sitting next to each other, it's really easy to stew over a particular comment and take it to mean something else. And before you know it, an innocent remark by a colleague has been blown out of all proportion in our heads. And with your team not being able to as easily read body language via a camera and computer, or establish tone via the written word, you can expect these misunderstanding to happen more often.

I’ve realised that one of the best ways to handle possible misunderstandings is asking. Something along the lines of “I've got something that's going on in my head that you're not happy at the moment”, or “I can see from your face that something didn't quite sit there, am I getting the wrong end of the stick?”.

We encourage our Club Members (and you!) to over-communicate, not just with a virtual team, but also with so much uncertainty around at the moment. When social cues and in-person interactions are limited, and with all the anxiety and uncertainty in the world, it can be really easy to convince ourselves that there’s a problem. When the reality is it’s just a simple misunderstanding. Remember, before you know it, that one little assumption that your team member didn't check out can suddenly become a big issue. Either for you or them in their minds!

More distractions

Do you feel like you get more easily distracted when you are working from home? That’s because you do! There are lots of distractions when we’re on camera. Actually, while I was running this virtual workshop, I could hear my son building a castle model with Legos right outside my door. I could also hear occasionally the Amazon delivery man knocking at my door. We all seem to be getting more email notifications, more special promotions, kids running around, teachers trying to get in touch with us and, before we know it, we got distracted, and we are battling against this all day. At the moment my kids school seems to be sending me at least 3 notifications a day via their software to communicate with parents.


Your role in establishing trust within a virtual team

As the leader of your small accountancy firm, you are responsible for establishing the trust downwards and also between the team members. If you've got a dispute between team members, it's up to you to sort it out. As overwhelming as it might get sometimes, you are expected to be the adult in this relationship. And as owner of your practice, the responsibility for having a high performing team rests with you. Remember, you get the team and practice you deserve.

The Trust Triangle for team leaders

Trust has three drivers: authenticity, logic, and empathy. When trust is lost, it can almost always be traced back to a breakdown in one of them. To build trust as a leader, you first need to figure out which driver you “wobble” on. In our virtual team leader workshop we shared this diagram of the Trust Triangle. (PS our members get free places on our workshops)

The Trust Triangle

Authenticity - “I experience the real you”

As a leader, you've got to be authentic. You need to allow your members of staff to experience the real you. Let’s be frank. We all have our flaws. I personally have a very low attention span. (All my team members will tell you this). With time I’ve learned to be authentic with my team. And own this part of me, instead of trying to hide this weakness. This means I will be honest when I need a break in a meeting. It's also the reason I will tend to avoid scheduling long meetings without a break... Don't feel you need to be the perfect person. For example, if you’ve got a bit of a temper, it's only natural for you when your temper goes to blame others. If this is you, let your team know you have a short fuse. And also educate them to only listen to what you are saying when you have calmed down. Oh, and be good at apologising for your outbursts.

Empathy - “I believe you care about me and my success”

Does your staff believe you care about them and their success? This is critical if you want your staff to trust you. For example:

  • If you get distracted during conversations with your team, they will feel that you don’t care about them or about what they have to say. Therefore, it's imperative, that you pay attention and show interest when your staff members are talking to you.
  • Beware of putting your needs first all the time. For example, if you had a meeting last week to tell your team you are running low on cash, it might not be a great idea to then tell the team about an expensive car or holiday you are buying
  • Prepare to spend time with your staff and take an interest in them. This will massively boost your trust index.

Logic - “I know you can do it; your reasoning and judgment are sound”

When we talk about logic, we need to consider how plausible you sound to your staff. E.g. how sound are your reasoning and judgement? You won’t be able to gain their trust if you suddenly tell them you are going to make a million pounds next year when you are currently close to turning over fifty thousand pounds a year. As a leader , of course your communication, messages and strategies need to be aspirational but also believable.

Sometimes as firm leaders, we can have the feeling that our members of staff doubt our judgement. But more often than not, it has very little to do with people not trusting our reasoning.  More to do with us not being good at communicating our ideas regularly enough. We assume the team knows what we are thinking. When actually we should try to become a broken record, always talking about what’s important for the team and the business.

6 elements that need to be present to create trust between people

  1. Authenticity. You need to make room for that real you to emerge, with the good aspects of your personality and the not so good too.
  2. Vulnerability. It might be tempting to believe that showing how you are feeling puts you in a weak position. However, when you are open to reveal yourself as vulnerable with your team, you can also expect them to be more open and honest with you.
  3. Consistency. If you want something done, you need to make sure that you are leading from the front.
  4. Do what we say we are going to do. Lack of accountability can really damage trust between people.
  5. Find common ground. 
  6. Trust in ourselves.

What can you do as a team leader to establish trust within your virtual team?

Establish psychological safety.

As you can imagine, trust goes hand in hand with psychological safety, that shared feeling that you can safely express your thoughts and feelings, take the initiative and make mistakes without fearing judgement. If you've built a culture that's got that psychological safety in it, it’s naturally going to help you build trust within the team. Not sure your firm’s culture and leadership style are supporting your team’s psychological checklist? Take a look at our free Psychological Safety checklist (which we used on the workshop) to assess how you are doing.

Be honest with team members.

If the business is having a difficult month, talk about it. Don't try and hide the truth from your team. They are probably aware that it is a bad month. Working together to overcome problems can boost that solidarity that your business needs to thrive. As an example, at the start of lockdown, every single member of my team turned around to me and said they were willing to take a pay cut or reduce their hours. Without exception. But this only happened because I’ve always been open about the state of the business.

Start virtual ‘social time’ for your team

If we're going to get that trust, we need to have shared values, experiences and stuff we care about. For example, music is really important to many of our team members. And we will often share clips of music together. So, start the virtual social time for your team and make sure everybody knows they are expected to be there. No excuses.

These are a couple of ideas that you could consider:

  • Create a “not-work-related” chat channel. Allow this to be a space where you can share all sorts of nonsense and make sure you often sharing and commenting on this channel. This will encourage your team to regularly use the channel too. Also, make sure you are keeping the interactions short and simple (i.e. What emoji describes to you today?)
  • Freaky Friday. Host a monthly Friday meeting and do something fun like:
    • Drumming sessions.
    • Fancy dress. Ask people to show up dressed up and ask them why they picked that outfit.
    • Talent shows.
    • Team building games (i.e. virtual escape rooms, quizzes, Kahoot, among others).
  • If you are hosting a fun monthly meeting, prepare a kit for your staff members with everything they’ll need for the activities you have in mind, and send it before the meeting. Make sure everyone opens it during the meeting. Gather their thoughts and reactions.

Create a safe online space to collaborate

Now more than ever, it is vital to have the appropriate technology to foster communication and accountability with a virtual team. Make sure you read our article on Practice Management Software for accountants and why you need practice management software.

When you believe and act like it is your role to grow trust with and within your team, you will see a positive impact in both their relationships and your team's results. But it all starts with you!

Ready to kick-start the growth of your firm?