How to Lead a Successful Remote Team: Building Trust

Due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations around the world are resorting to remote work. Even before the crisis, adoption of remote work has been increasing in the United States. Between 2005 and 2017, there was a 159 percent increase in remote workers.

Today, more than 3.9 million U.S. workers work remotely in certain capacities. With the trend of remote work in the past two decades, researchers have been studying how to work more efficiently in remote settings, as well as what team leaders can do to promote effective performance in virtual work environments.

In my next couple of posts, I will share with you some evidence-based strategies on what you can do to lead a successful remote team.

Today, let’s start with the foundation of an effective virtual team: trust.

One finding over the past few decades on intrateam trust is that trust matters more in teams that rely more heavily on virtual communications than face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately, one of my research studies (Click HERE to access the research white paper) found that increasing reliance on virtual tools of communication has a negative relationship with team members’ perceptions of trust and can increase team conflict.

The use of emails, phone calls or instant messages not only makes monitoring, observing and controlling the amount of effort team members expend impossible, but it also makes others’ behaviors “invisible.” Such “invisibility” can add risks of cheating, neglecting or omitting others’ interests, abusing one’s power or resources, lowering team members’ self-esteem (due to lack of direct and timely feedback) and misinterpretation or misanticipation of others’ intentions, decisions or “actions.” 2, 3

Moreover, the frequent use of emails leads to a higher possibility for conflict because emotions in these messages tend to be misinterpreted. Research reveals receivers often misinterpret work emails as more emotionally negative or neutral than intended. It was also found that people believed relationships with coworkers were cold and impersonal when email was used as the medium for communication. These risks can directly hinder or harm the development of team trust and result in more team conflict.

To mitigate the negative impacts of virtual communication, there are two things leaders can do to help increase team trust: increase specialization and reduce task structure. With increasing specialization in member knowledge and expertise, the negative relationship between virtuality and trust dissipated. When each member’s specialized expertise is added as part of his/her team character, those team members’ competence tends to be noticeable to the other members.

As virtual communication typically provides very little contextual information, the salience of member expertise likely has a greater effect than in face-to-face settings. Thus, it is easier for people to trust other members with specialized knowledge, even if they can’t observe them personally.

Therefore, leaders can potentially control undesired conflicts by building and developing teams with individuals specialized in diverse task-related areas — and make these specializations clear to all members. This will increase the clarity of member competencies, thus increasing team members’ perception of trust.

Finally, as multiple research studies have indicated, informal and unplanned interactions tend to mitigate conflicts in virtual teams, meaning that less structured tasks give team members greater freedom to interact with their teammates and develop stronger interpersonal relationships. Stemming from this phenomenon, lower levels of task structure reduced perceived conflict (both task- or relationship-oriented).

To help team members build trust, leaders need to rethink team tasks during this switch to remote work. They can make tasks more flexible to employees, encourage the use of video conferences to increase face-to-face interaction and, most importantly, create opportunities for informal interpersonal interactions among team members.

In the next blog, let’s discuss how to meet effectively in virtual settings.

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[1] Hering, B.B. (February 13th, 2020). Remote work statistics: Shifting norms and expectations. Retrieved from:

[2] Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology101, 1151-1177.

[3] Sheppard, B.H., & Sherman, D.M. (1998). The grammars of trust: A model and general implications. The Academy of Management Review, 23, 422-437.

[4] Byron, K. (2008). Carrying too heavy a load? The communication and miscommunication of emotion by email. Academy of Management Review, 33, 309-327.

[5] Markus, M.L. (1994). Electronic mail as the medium of managerial choice. Organization Science, 5, 502-527.

[6] Bunderson, J.S., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2002). Comparing alternative conceptualizations of functional diversity in management teams: Process and performance effects. Academy of Management Journal, 45, 875-893.

[7] Lewis, K.  (2003). Measuring transactive memory systems in the field: Scale development and validation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 587-604.

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