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Trust in virtual teams

Virtual teams are becoming increasingly popular, and not just since the restrictions enforced by COVID-19. But are virtual teams also efficient? What makes them efficient? The answer to this question begins with the key to successful cooperation: trust. So, why exactly do we need trust in virtual teams? In our series of articles, we show you 5 success factors why trust is the key to effective collaboration.

5 success factors why trust is the key to effective collaboration

Virtual teams are becoming increasingly popular, and not just since the restrictions enforced by COVID-19. They have long been part of everyday life in multinational corporations, and many medium-sized companies are discovering their advantages as well: Virtual teams often do not need fixed office space, can be deployed flexibly in terms of time, and allow geographically distant experts to work together in intensive small groups at a low cost. So far so good. But are virtual teams also efficient? What makes them efficient? The answer to this question begins with the key to successful cooperation: trust.

In our series of articles, we show you 5 success factors why trust in virtual teams is the key to effective collaboration.

1. trust is the basis of social cooperation

Core idea: Without trust there can be neither private partnerships nor professional cooperation. Trust means expecting the goodwill of others without being able to exclude the risk of abuse of trust.

Efficient social relationships require trust. If people trust each other, then no elaborate control and monitoring measures are necessary to minimize risks. This saves time and money because control – if it succeeds at all – is associated with high transaction costs. We would not be able to enter into private relationships at all without trust, because partnerships and friendships require an enormous amount of trust. But trust is also the key to cooperative work in professional life. This is particularly evident at the team level, but extends through all other levels up to the overall organization and the motivating confidence of knowing that all other colleagues are also committed to the well-being of the company.

In order to trust a person, we must perceive them as sincere, competent, and appreciative (Frei and Morriss 2020). People who disguise themselves, act illogically, and look out for their own advantage have little chance of being trusted. But what does it mean to trust someone? In essence, the various scientific definitions can be summarized thus: A person trusts another person when he or she assumes that he or she is benevolent toward oneself and when he or she willingly risks being vulnerable to that other person without being able to monitor or control his or her actions (Flavian et al. 2019). Both aspects – assumed benevolence and risk-taking – must come together for trust to exist.

2. trust makes teams efficient

Core idea: Only when a team trusts its team leader will it be efficient. But the trust between the team members must also be right. Close communication and transparent work processes are crucial for this.

Trust can be measured. And so the impact of trust on team performance can also be studied. Several studies have demonstrated that trust has a positive impact on team performance and positively influences team members’ attitudes toward the team (Breuer et al. 2020). The team leader plays a special role in the development of trust in teams. Only when team members fully trusted the team leader was their commitment significantly higher. According to the studies, as soon as only a normal trust relationship was present, team members’ commitment was hardly greater than in a working relationship filled with distrust of the team leader (Buckingham and Goodall 2020). The decisive factor for the performance of the teams was communication, which became significantly more efficient when trust in the team was high (Newman et al. 2020). This trust was based not least on the daily exchange between the team management and the team members. Trust was shown to reduce the emotional distance between team members and help them see the team as a single unit (Flavian et al. 2019).

However, it is not only the individual relationship of trust between the team member and the team management that is decisive. At the same time, the studies show that team performance also depends on trust in other team members (Breuer et al. 2020). Only when team members felt that they were part of a high-performing and cooperating team was their engagement particularly high (Buckingham and Goodall 2020). Trust in teamwork was strengthened by transparent work processes with clear assignments of responsibility as well as by the traceability of work results (Breuer et al. 2017). According to studies, regular feedback loops, shared values and adherence to rules and agreements are also important for the development of trust in teams. These measures increased trust especially when team members could observe them directly (Ford et al. 2017).

3. making virtual teams visible

Core idea: Virtual teams lack direct contact. That’s why trust has an even greater impact on team performance here. However, trust can only be strengthened if virtual teams are named as such. At present, this often fails.

If team trust can be generated and strengthened through direct feedback and direct observation of team members’ work, what about trust in virtual teams? In them, exchange usually takes place across geographical and not infrequently also cultural borders. They are limited to electronic communication media (Newman and Ford 2020). A casual and informal conversation at the coffee machine is hardly possible. Is it still possible to build trust here?

Research first shows that virtual teams are less efficient than on-site teams (Flavian et al. 2019). But that doesn’t mean that excellent virtual teams can’t be more efficient than face-to-face teams. In fact, the performance of on-site teams could even be improved when team members worked four days a week away from the office (Buckingham and Goodall 2020). So distance does not seem to fundamentally reduce efficiency. The fact that the team performance of virtual teams is lower than that of office teams does not seem to be a law of nature. Virtual teams, however, face greater obstacles on the road to efficiency.

The most important of these obstacles is probably the least anticipated: A major challenge for virtual teams is to be perceived as a team in the first place and to see themselves as such. It is true that the cooperation of several employees is often required to handle the daily work assignments in companies. However, their collaboration is often not understood as the work of a team. As a result, 50 percent of the teams that work every day around the world are not even recognized as such (Buckingham and Goodall 2020). Employees in such loose groups have to cope with the distance of virtual teams, and at the same time they lack the trust-building opportunities that can be used in formal teams. This is highly problematic given the finding that the impact of trust on team performance is even greater for virtual teams than for on-site teams (Breuer et al. 2020). In order for this trust to develop, teams must therefore be made visible as such. Once that is done, targeted measures can provide confidence.

4. promote trust building

Core idea: Building trust in virtual teams succeeds through close communication, regular feedback and fair team leadership. IT solutions that make work processes transparent and virtual meetings in which only small talk takes place are also important.

For a team leader to be perceived as trustworthy, qualities such as impartiality, the ability to provide feedback, and the ability to explain one’s own decisions play an important role. Interestingly, however, the fairness and physical attractiveness of the team leader also influenced the trust placed in them (Guinalíu and Jordán 2016). For practice, the requirement of equity means being fair and unbiased to all team members and not favoring anyone. With attractiveness in mind, and recognizing that people associate beauty with smartness and empathy, team leaders should take care to appear shirtless and tousled-haired, even in virtual meetings, in order to be ascribed as much confidence as possible (Flavian et al. 2019).

However, for team members to be able to trust, it is not only the behavior of the team leader that is important. The personal ability of each team member to trust people in general also has a major impact, according to studies (Breuer et al. 2017). But of course, trust can also be applied by people who find it inherently difficult. Targeted measures lend themselves to this.

As trust in real teams is fostered by being able to directly observe the other team members, their skills, and work outcomes, special measures need to be taken in virtual teams to create transparency (Ford et al. 2017). Communication routines and work organization play a central role here (Newman and Ford 2020). Regular virtual meetings between team leadership and each team member are recommended by the research, as well as weekly meetings with all team members. If they are conducted only once a month, team member satisfaction drops by 21 percentage points compared to weekly meetings (Buckingham and Goodall 2020). Regarding communication, frequency, predictability, responsiveness, and clarity emerged as the most important predictors of team trust (Newman et al. 2020). In addition to good communication tools, IT should not skimp on the selection of the project management tool. This can be used to make work processes and results transparent and thus replace break conversations about the status of work in on-site teams (Breuer et al. 2017). However, informal meetings and conversations cannot be completely dispensed with, so even in virtual teams, team leaders should consciously plan time for small talk and informal communication between members (Breuer et al. 2017).

5. take time for leadership

Core idea: Leadership is a job that cannot be done on the side. Leading virtual teams to high performance by building trust is particularly time-consuming. The leadership foundations for this are transparency and intensive communication.

The numerous studies conducted in recent years on the success of virtual teams agree that virtual teams do have a disadvantage compared to on-site teams. However, they can more than make up for this disadvantage if the team management lives up to the trust placed in them. As a key figure in the satisfaction, motivation and performance of team members, she must take care to perceive the needs of the team and ensure that they can be met. This includes demands for transparency and for clear, closely timed one-on-one and team-level communication. For virtual leadership, this means giving a lot of time and resources to leading the team. A team cannot be managed on the side. Management responsibility requires an independent area of activity. This applies not only, but especially to the management of virtual teams.

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Breuer, Christina; Hüffmeier, Joachim; Hertel, Guido (2017): Trust by mouse click: How trust can emerge in virtual teams. In: PERSONAL quaterly 69 (02), pp. 10-16.

Breuer, Christina; Hüffmeier, Joachim; Hibben, Frederike; Hertel, Guido (2020): Trust in teams: A taxonomy of perceived trustworthiness factors and risk-taking behaviors in face-to-face and virtual teams. In: Human Relations 73 (1), pp. 3-34. DOI: 10.1177/0018726718818721.

Buckingham, Marcus; Goodall, Ashley (2020): The power of invisible teams. In: Harvard Business Manager (January), pp. 21-31.

Flavian, Carlos; Guinalíu, Miguel; Jordan, Pau (2019): Antecedents and consequences of trust on a virtual team leader. In: EJMBE 28 (1), pp. 2-24. DOI: 10.1108/EJMBE-11-2017-0043.

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Newman, Sean A.; Ford, Robert C.; Marshall, Greg W. (2020): Virtual team leader communication: employee perception and organizational reality. In: International Journal of Business Communication 57 (4), pp. 452-473. DOI: 10.1177/2329488419829895.

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