How Trust Builds Differently in Virtual Teams

Trust develops differently in virtual teams than it does in co-located teams.

More than 20 years ago I did my Master’s thesis on understanding how distance impacted trust. Through surveys and 1:1 interviews with leaders of global teams I discovered and labeled two distinct types of workplace trust: Relational Trust and Transactional Trust. Ongoing research and experience over these past 20 years have further deepened our understanding and relevance of each type.

Relational Trust

Relational Trust is built by developing interpersonal relationships. It involves learning about other people in areas such as personality traits and style, family, hobbies, experiences, heritage and culture. This means people build expectations of each other based on first-hand information. When people talk about building trust, they are most often referring to Relational Trust. It is much of what we refer to as the Interpersonal View of our Distance Lens.

Transactional Trust

Transactional Trust develops based on how others execute on their commitments, and how they manage their interactions. It is task-focused and transaction-based, and involves aspects such as quality, timeliness, adherence to expectations, responsiveness and technology use. Completing tasks as expected makes someone trustworthy, and each of these actions strengthens trust in a self-fulfilling fashion. Yet, people don’t always think of these types of exchanges as trust building or busting. Our experience is transactional trust takes longer to develop, but is quickly broken.

Trust in Co-located Teams

Relational Trust tends to develop naturally in co-located teams and situations where people have opportunities to get to know things about each other through informal, non-structured time, such as before and after meetings, impromptu hallway exchanges, or conversations over food or beverage. These in person settings enable Relational Trust to develop before or in parallel with Transactional Trust.

Trust in Virtual Teams

Virtual workers, on the other hand, are more likely to first experience Transactional Trust.  Often the initial or only points of contact remote team members have with each other are based on getting a task done. This means trust is developed – or not – based on how well a person performs on their commitments, as well as how they interact about it. As that develops, they also gain more Relational Trust. Transactional trust is built in some of the following ways:

  • Completing a task that is what was asked for and expected without prompting

  • Doing what you say you’re going to do

  • Doing quality work

  • Sharing information that may be relevant for another person

  • Working on a task together that is a positive result and experience

  • Collaborating well

For virtual teams, it is more mission critical it is for leaders to nurture the development of transactional trust by aligning process to complete tasks and work products. Equally, however, leaders must explicitly work to develop relational trust by encouraging workers to get to know more about each other.

Trust is Tech-agnostic

My original work was done in 1996, when email was just moving into the mainstream, and many people were trying to understand how information could be transferred by something you couldn’t see. The internet is now turning 30; globalization and digital transformation continue to reshape our workplaces. At Bridging Distance, as we teach the concepts of Relational and Transactional trust, we find them even more critical today than I did those 20+ years ago. Here’s just one story that highlights this.

A Brief Case Study

Recently, we worked with a company to help accelerate productivity after some high-level restructuring.

I began coaching Alex (a pseudonym), a leader recently assigned to a fairly experienced globally-distributed team where three of the seven members were new to the team.

He was planning a team offsite, but that was several months away.

Alex understood that stronger connections and interactions could lead to better team results, so he continually searched for ways to build trust. Unfortunately, he limited his efforts to Relational Trust building: asking team members to share more about who they were, spotlighting careers, and encouraging socializing when members were together in person. He was planning a team offsite, but that was several months away.

This focus on building Relational Trust had Alex inadvertently destroying Transactional Trust in irregular follow through on responsibilities that the team needed to be successful. Although the team used multiple digital tools, Alex rarely responded to reach outs in less than 8 hours. He generally assumed he understood how actions should be completed and operations at the various locations. Aside from regular team meetings, his interactions were limited to asking for or sharing information.

Our work with him broadened his understanding of trust in distributed environments

Our work with him broadened his understanding of trust in distributed environments, creating and adhering to office hours for informal digital ‘drop ins’, creating a team plan about expected response time and when to use each digital modality, and adjusting his virtual meeting agenda and facilitation style to formalize informal ‘get to know each other’ activities while still accomplishing the business at hand. These and other adjustments allow Alex to capitalize on all opportunities to deepen the team’s sense of belonging and commitment to their goals.

Months after we started working together Alex’s team had a much-anticipated offsite, and internal trust was already on the upswing. Thanks to our adjustments the team is well on their way to being a higher performing unit built on both Relational Trust and Transactional Trust.

Stefanie Heiter