Developing Trust and Accountability in Virtual Teams: Why it Matters

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After state restrictions due to Covid-19 began to be lifted in the summer of 2020, a small publishing company in the Midwest directed their employees to return to work in the office. For nearly six months, the employees had been working from home. As far as their work tasks, the employees, as writers and editors, were very pleased to have the opportunity to work virtually. It spoiled them quite a bit, as they experienced a nice dollar savings, and time saved from their previous work commute. Production of work was seamlessly accomplished and deadlines were always met.

When they were called back to work, there was an underlying level of resentment. They now were required to return to their office as if nothing had ever happened. But they knew that working from home got the job done. Also, it was commonly understood among the staff that news stories and studies during the pandemic reported that people working from home were more productive.

One employee was very upset and felt the return to office work was unnecessary, as her tasks had always been done on schedule. She valued the quiet time at her home office, and the opportunity to focus with minimal distractions. She was so upset about returning to the office she felt compelled to speak with her manager. She respectfully asked him to explain the reasons the staff were now required to report to the office each day. He responded, “If I have a question, I want to be able to ask you in person.” To her, he seemed evasive, and not willing to give a valid explanation. Afterall, there were many communication tools he could use to ask questions such as instant messaging, email, Skype, and even the old fashioned telephone.

Could the real issues have been matters of trust and accountability? The team members, who are all much younger than their manager, believed he was “old school,” and not trusting of them to work remotely and of their capacity to accomplish at home what they had done at the office. Each team member believed in accountability, and understood its importance, and were strong believers in the goals of the organization.

The Necessity of Trust

In the above example, trust had not been established, or at least it was not communicated to the team members that they were trusted. It was quite the opposite. To accomplish trust among your team members, it is important to form authentic relationships that develop and inspire. Communication is key, and it should always include direct feedback to team members. Communication cannot be inconsistent, and should be practiced every day in the virtual workplace. Extra effort is required in the virtual setting, as you no longer meet with your co-workers in the breakroom or by the postage machine.

Duties should be defined, including a prioritization of the job description, and responsibilities and duties. Set standards so that you have definitive ways of measuring success and failure. Utilize these standards as early in the interview process with job candidates. Document the job expectations as part of the company policy manual.

As a manager or leader, get to personally know each team member. Clearly assign tasks to each team member, and be sure to follow up. Also, practice what you preach. Reward “wins,” but also ensure there are consequences for failure. As far as mistakes, learn to embrace them as part of the learning process. Always consider that trust can be destroyed by inconsistency, randomness, and haphazard or unexpected change.

Establishing a Collaborative Culture

To achieve goals, an organization must inspire collaboration. With increases in technology, there is a demand for a more flexible work environment. However, this must not hinder the need for collaboration. In fact, collaboration within an organization becomes even more crucial in the virtual environment.

Collaboration is a necessary component to the health of an organization, and assists in setting goals to achieve maximum productivity. With team members spread across cultural, geographical, and organizational contexts, virtual team members are challenged by working across space and time.

Leadership support is needed to culture teamwork. Also important is consensus, as in keeping everyone on board with the task at hand. Put into action a culture of collaboration, but not by force or mandates.

Accountability is Required of Everyone

Leadership, culture, technology, and practices are all elements to be considered in how they impact team members and organizational effectiveness. A strong level of commitment and clarity must be made to establish roles and responsibilities. Clear and understandable goals, expectations, and policies must be set. Those working in a virtual workplace need to know what is expected of them. Also, for the sake of accountability everyone on the team should be responsible for meeting agendas.

Digital Workplace Priorities

Priorities include employee learning and development. Virtual meetings should be held for valid and necessary reasons, not just meetings for the sake of meetings. Success should be measured on productivity, not based on time worked or how busy the employee seems to be. Judgment of team members should be based upon work outcomes and results, without getting hung up on things that don’t in the end really matter.

In the example of the publishing company, the manager would be much better served to understand the advantages to his organization of allowing his team to work remotely. The workplace can be transformed through implementation of an innovative and thriving digital workplace. For an organization to be healthy and successful it requires measures of accountability and trust in the people who can make things work.

By: J. Steven, JD