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Leading virtual projects - how to build trust when you can't be together?

In July, over two hundred people joined me for an hour to explore leading virtual projects. You can find details of this APM webinar, along with the recording, outputs and slides here.
 
More than two thirds of the participants work on two or more virtual projects and a handful run ten or more virtual projects concurrently. This can be really tricky and, as you can imagine, I was inundated with questions, comments and suggestions from participants. As it was impossible to all of the questions live, the APM agreed that it would be a good idea to write a few blog posts to cover more, including some practical tips. Here is the first, which focuses on how to build trust remotely.
 
Building trust is a challenge!
It certainly is! Trust is crucial in project teams, whatever their mode of operating. Virtual teams, spread out geographically, operate without the possibility of individuals bumping into each other by the coffee machine and having a quick catch up conversation to sort out misunderstandings. You can’t see what your colleagues are up to by glancing over to their nearby desks. You need to trust them instead.

In this virtual environment, trust is imperative. But is also seems ephemeral – slow to build up and quick to disappear. Thomas Wise, in his 2013 book “Trust in Virtual Teams” talks about three elements of trust:

  • Personality based trust: made up of trustworthiness, relationships and consistency;
  • Cognitive based trust: made up of expectation, knowledge and experience;
  • Institutional trust: made up of consistency, expectation and equity.

David Maister in his book “The Trusted Advisor”  suggests a formula for trust:
 
trust = credibility + reliability + intimacy
            -------------------------------------------
                      self-orientation

 
The virtual project leader would do well to consider these as they go about their work. Here are just a few questions that you might consider when building trust across your virtual project team:
 
How can the individuals in your project team build relationships with one another, as real people, not just disembodied voices on a conference call? Social media can help here as can the wide range of technologies available for virtual working. Don’t forget simple one-to-one phone conversations! Spend some time discussing the world beyond work. One of my clients holds a team lunch via Telepresence every couple of months. Team members bring their lunches and eat together, able to view and hear their colleagues. They talk about anything except work. This has helped to build the relationships and therefore the trust in her remote team.
           
In terms of knowledge, how can each person access the knowledge they need on the project? Wise says that by building a collective memory, you can enhance the sense of belonging. So I suggest that you build a project team space, where your project documents and more can be shared with everyone. Make sure that everyone in the team has equal access, wherever in the world they come from and whichever organization they are part of. Perhaps your team space could share stories and information about each team member and their previous experience, to help build up each person’s credibility with others.
 
In terms of the organidation you belong to, consider how equitable you are? An all-too-frequent example where remote people are not treated equally is the hybrid meeting. Some people are present in a meeting room face-to-face and others join remotely by speaker phone. I’ve seen the results: far too often, the conversation in the room becomes animated and the people on the end of the phone are all but forgotten. They can’t hear very well because the speaker phone is too far away from many of the people speaking. Even worse, people in the room write down ideas on a flipchart or whiteboard that the remote people can’t see. Surely it would be far more equitable to have a level playing field, with everyone on a conference call line with a shared screen? That would send a powerful message to those remote participants that they were equal, valued members of the team and would surely increase their trust.
 
Project team leaders would do well to remember the lower part of David Maister’s formula, which indicates that the more self-oriented you are, the lower the trust that others will have of you.
 
So, we’ve seen that trust is not easy but it is important and I look forward to your comments as to how trust has worked for you and your virtual projects. Next time: the challenge of working with Australia.
 

6 comments

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  1. Penny Pullan
    Penny Pullan 12 October 2015, 11:38 AM

    Hi Colin,Thanks for your input. Wow, 9 conference calls back to back? You must be reeling afterwards, and you must have a very strong bladder! Rather you than me, but I do admire your committment to your business users. You're right, that technique (amongst others) is incredibly useful for engaging people. I call it polling, ie checking each person's input/feelings regularly throughout the call. It really helps to agree that you'll be doing this when you agree how you'll work together. I've been introduced to Qube via Eddie Obeng and it seems to be a very immersive environment, with lots of good tools built in.If you too would be able to help with the input for my book, that would be marvellous! It's here: https://www.surveymonkey.net/collect/?collector_id=71753320

  2. Penny Pullan
    Penny Pullan 12 October 2015, 11:34 AM

    Hi Richard, thanks for your input and those sound like really useful tools. ICT and Communications plans are really important. However, what really matters, in fact what these tools are put in place to achieve, is good, effective working relationships based on trust. I find that technology is an incredible enabler for virtual working but that it only accounts for around 10% of what you need to make virtual working work well. That's why I'm writing a book at the moment on Virtual Leadership - to me, that's the other 90%!If you'd like to help with the book, please spend 4 minutes on my survey on the challenges of virtual working. You can find it here: https://www.surveymonkey.net/collect/?collector_id=71753320

  3. Colin Parker
    Colin Parker 11 October 2015, 06:45 PM

    Penny, you are right it all comes down to trust in the end but I think that we need to develop a set of techniques to make our virtual interactions work better.The trickiest facet of remote meetings I think is that it is difficult to tell who is paying attention, contributing or frankly even listening! I was very struck by the idea of the team lunch, I might try that.I am currently using a cycle of fortnightly conference calls to coordinate a team of 100 business users (yes 9 half hour calls, all identical run back to back - wild!). To ensure that everyone is engaged in the process during the calls I am using a technique called spin casting that I learned from Eddie Obeng on the Qube. A deceptively simple but powerful technique that simply involves going around everyone in an agreed order and asking each in turn for a response to the same question.By doing this I can gauge whether they are paying attention and understanding by the quality of their responses.Do they trust me? Not sure, but I am a patient man and the only antidote to a lack of trust (should it exist) actually is a long series of kept promises!Ask them again after the real world delivery goes in!Colin 

  4. Colin Parker
    Colin Parker 11 October 2015, 06:46 PM

    Penny, you are right it all comes down to trust in the end but I think that we need to develop a set of techniques to make our virtual interactions work better.The trickiest facet of remote meetings I think is that it is difficult to tell who is paying attention, contributing or frankly even listening! I was very struck by the idea of the team lunch, I might try that.I am currently using a cycle of fortnightly conference calls to coordinate a team of 100 business users (yes 9 half hour calls, all identical run back to back - wild!). To ensure that everyone is engaged in the process during the calls I am using a technique called spin casting that I learned from Eddie Obeng on the Qube. A deceptively simple but powerful technique that simply involves going around everyone in an agreed order and asking each in turn for a response to the same question.By doing this I can gauge whether they are paying attention and understanding by the quality of their responses.Do they trust me? Not sure, but I am a patient man and the only antidote to a lack of trust (should it exist) actually is a long series of kept promises!Ask them again after the real world delivery goes in!Colin 

  5. Colin Parker
    Colin Parker 11 October 2015, 06:45 PM

    Penny, you are right it all comes down to trust in the end but I think that we need to develop a set of techniques to make our virtual interactions work better.The trickiest facet of remote meetings I think is that it is difficult to tell who is paying attention, contributing or frankly even listening! I was very struck by the idea of the team lunch, I might try that.I am currently using a cycle of fortnightly conference calls to coordinate a team of 100 business users (yes 9 half hour calls, all identical run back to back - wild!). To ensure that everyone is engaged in the process during the calls I am using a technique called spin casting that I learned from Eddie Obeng on the Qube. A deceptively simple but powerful technique that simply involves going around everyone in an agreed order and asking each in turn for a response to the same question.By doing this I can gauge whether they are paying attention and understanding by the quality of their responses.Do they trust me? Not sure, but I am a patient man and the only antidote to a lack of trust (should it exist) actually is a long series of kept promises!Ask them again after the real world delivery goes in!Colin 

  6. Richard Renshaw
    Richard Renshaw 22 September 2015, 08:05 PM

    @Penny, thank you for the insightful good post. As a suggestion consider for a virtual project that during Start-up a Project Execution Plan or Project Management Plan is developed. Elements within the plan could include:- a Communications Plan- an initial ICT Plan (Information Communications Technology Plan) i.e. what tools to utilize during the initial 60 to 90 days of the proect for collaboration, perhaps stand alone single user licence for scheduling software, Wi-Fi network based printers, issue of identified top risks for the project and allocation of whom is an owner best positioned to manage mitigation measures.- medium term ICT Plan, perhaps undertaking a bulk upload of all documents and drawings to a cloud based electronic document management system (EDMS), perhaps multi-User server based licences for scheduling software forWhere I wanted to go is that by planning for infratructure and an associated communications plan as to whom should get what adds to the ability for collaboration and thereon in my opinion heightened trust across the organization. As evidence the ability to share in accord with the communications plan an updated risk register aids generation of a risk and opportunities philosophy across the enterprise fo rthe benefit of all i.e. early warning of areas of uncertainty communicated to key stakeholders adds in my opinion the build of trust.It's just a suggestion, hope it appeals. Thanks for the opportunity for dialogue on an most important topic; for the building of trust.Kind regardsRichard