Building Real Trust in a Virtual Work Environment

5 min read
Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Source: Unsplash/Annie Spratt

The importance of trust in the workplace is well-documented. Trust is different from general goodwill, it’s about more than finding colleagues agreeable and nice to work with. Trust not only makes us feel good; it changes our behavior. Trust even has been shown to create a chemical reaction: a study discussed a few years ago in Harvard Business Review showed the impact of trust on oxytocin levels.

In the workplace, trust has been reported to significantly raise energy and productivity and reduce stress. Historically, we reveal trust at the workplace over time, through small and large emotional transactions. We loan a dollar to a colleague who wants something from the vending machine; our new boss let us run with a major project. But those transactions reveal trust that has already occurred (even if just a dollar’s worth!). How was the trust established? Often it is through the in-between moments: the small exchanges we have throughout the day with each other, usually not about the work itself, and sometimes unspoken. And when we all worked on-site, those moments came more easily and naturally.

How do you build trust at work when you’re not even at work?

Now many of us work from home, at least part of the time. Even when we go into the office, it’s likely that some of our time is spent on Zoom calls with team members or supervisors that are themselves not there in-person. The ability to have in-between moments with someone is much more difficult: call it the transactional cost of virtual meeting efficiency. When we walked down a hallway together to a meeting, we chatted. We sat in the conference together and waited for the late arrivals: someone mentioned what they binged on Netflix the night before. Now, we jump on calls at the appointed time, and work on something else with the call muted and camera off while we wait (okay, and also during the call itself sometimes). And no one borrows a dollar for the vending machine. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need trust.

In a virtual work environment trust is more important than ever.

While we may have mastered working at home in a technical sense, we are still adjusting to building relationships and meeting all the emotional and psychological needs of working from home. Our ability to work as productively at home as we did at the office depends in part on building the same trust that our in-person interactions provided. How do we do that with teammates and managers? One, we can seek to maximize time in the office together. When possible, agree to a schedule where multiple team members are in the office on the same days, or at the least, one day per week. If that’s not possible, then you can individually try to choose to coordinate that some days overlap with your manager.

In addition to making the most of time in the office, don’t underestimate the benefits of incorporating virtual “in-between” moments into your day. While it will not happen as naturally, consider setting up one-to-one “coffee runs” with a colleague. This can be a fifteen-minute shared virtual break with a teammate. You don’t have to talk about work the whole time,

imagine the same dynamic as walking to the nearest coffee shop and back. This is usually easier with someone you already know: you can just reach out and say you miss those quick chats. But even if you are at a new company or trying to get to know a colleague that works in a different location, just be up front. Most people will probably respond positively. If they don’t, don’t force it.

Trust can impact your professional development.

Many people changed jobs during the pandemic. Many college graduates just entered the market. Gen Z has the least pre-pandemic work experience and are not surprisingly, showing a lot of interest in working at the office. For both groups, being fully or partly remote is particularly impactful on their ability to build connections (and therefore build trust) with those who manage them. If your company doesn’t have a specific onboarding process reimagined for a remote or hybrid work environment, you may have to create your own. Consider proactively asking your manager or HR department to help you meet key team members and other colleagues. Ask your manager for a regular, brief check-in, and work to stick to it even if some or most of those are virtual. While it might seem eager or manufactured, building those relationships will impact your future career. Trust matters as much as ever but could be harder to earn now than times past. We’ll all have to learn to master new ways of doing so.

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