Building trust is a delicate concept; it’s very hard to build, and extremely easy to destroy.
But in the workplace, establishing trust is vital for growth and bridging social and emotional connections between teams. In jobs where safety is essential, a lack of emotional connection can be deadly, says Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse.
“On oil rigs, if you get people into the habit of introducing themselves to each other—before they actually get to work on the rigs—to get to know [their colleagues] and their children, accident rates go way down,” he says. “Little habits, connections, ways of working with one another can make a huge impact to the bottom line of any business.”
In today’s geographically dispersed workforce, building trust can be a struggle as remote workers easily find themselves disconnected from overall company culture, akin to being second-class citizens of sort. In the years ahead, the challenge to managing long-distance relationships between colleagues will be necessary for success, especially now that 34% of the workforce—or 53 million people—in the U.S. alone are freelancers, according to a 2014 survey by Edelman Berland.
But how can global teams develop trust, especially if they’ve never met face-to-face and don’t have the opportunity to regularly communicate and interact, eliminating social distance? According to Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley, establishing trust is one of the biggest struggles for global teams. After all, how do you get people to feel connected to overall company culture when they’re not physically at the company? Without an emotional connection established, trust doesn’t exist, and a worker in Germany has little incentive to go above and beyond to make his Silicon Valley colleague’s life easier.
Neeley advises global teams to meet face-to-face, but when this solution is impossible, “structuring unstructured time” to encourage information sharing is key to promoting trust.
“Structuring unstructured time actually creates the space, on a regular basis, for people to disclose constraints that they may have, or interpersonal challenges that they may have . . . life-related stuff . . . issues they may have with the market, mistakes that they made in their sights,” explains Neeley.
It may sound simple, but planning time at the beginning of regularly scheduled meetings for people to speak about mundane details surrounding their lives lead to a level of trust that promotes extreme productivity and explains why accident rates go down on oil rigs, explains Virgin Pulse’s Boyce.
“The water cooler conversation is created through these unstructured, structured times because otherwise [people] won’t have it,” says Neeley. And if leaders think these conversations will happen naturally, they’re wrong. In virtual meetings, structuring unstructured time is even more important since participants don’t have the emotional ties needed for multinational companies to compete in the current economy.
“People are inhibited in virtual meetings because they don’t know the flow of the conversation,” says Neeley. “They barely know when and how to interrupt. They’re trying to follow the norms of the group. They become very task-focused.”
She continues: “The water cooler conversation is not task-focused. It’s interpersonal focused.”
Additionally, it’s important for leaders to disclose a lot of information about himself or herself, because that’s the number one thing that team members want to know more about, says Neeley.
“[If] the leader is typically not located where [the workers] are, then they’re very curious about this person who has a lot of influence around their job performance and their livelihood,” she says.