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

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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

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.

Penny Pullan

Posted by Penny Pullan on 15th Sep 2015

About the Author

Dr Penny Pullan’s latest book is ‘Virtual Leadership: Getting the best out of virtual teams and virtual work’. She serves on the committee of the Programme Management SIG (past chair) and she's a former Women in Project Management SIG co-chair. You can connect with her on Twitter @pennypullan or via her company www.makingprojectswork.co.uk

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