How to improve performance in remote teams
If there is no trust, document decisions.
Advice for Managers
- The higher the level of trust among members of remote teams, the higher their performance. You can know if there is trust in your team to see if team members engage in risk-taking behaviors such as giving feedback, helping each other, sharing (confidential) information, and speaking their minds.
- If the level of trust between team members is low and you can not raise it, move towards written communication forms such as email, slack, or messaging.
- If you can’t change the communication channel and the level of trust is low, you really need to increase the team trust level—no way around it. You need to develop your team. Read some of my team development posts or reach out to me to discuss my team development packages.
What is a team
This might be a pretty basic question. It’s too easy to assume that all know the basics. If people have different assumptions about something, they’ll have problems working together.
A team is a collection of at least two individuals who work together on a number of tasks within organizational boundaries and who share a set of common goals.
A virtual team is a team of at least two individuals who work together on a number of tasks within organizational boundaries and who share a set of common goals. Communication and/or collaboration between team members is mediated by some degree through electronic tools.
The two crucial processes for any remote team: Trust and Documentation
Based on a meta-review, two processes are important for remote teams to have. A meta-review is always a good resource to check when looking for evidence-based management ideas as they combine effects from different studies.
Trust your Team
Trust is the willingness of one person to be vulnerable to the action of another person based on the expectation that this other person will do certain action that are important to the first person.
In other words, trust exists between two people when they can engage in risky behavior. Team trust is when this trust extends to the complete team. Of course, this raises methodological issues of how to aggregate trust at the team level. Across all the relationships that exist in the team, is the lowest value of trust the most important (minimum), the average (mean), the most frequent level of trust (mode), or the highest level of trust (maximum)?
The key to trust is that it enables team members to engage in risky behavior. At the workplace, this is:
Reduction of defensive control, not being all the time on the guard trying to control everything around you.
Increase of open discussion about conflicts and mistakes
Giving and receiving feedback
Sharing confidential information
In teams with low levels of virtuality, trust level seems to play less of a role in predicting performance. This does not mean that in face-to-face teams, trust does not predict team performance. However, it means that other variables play a bigger role than trust in teams with no or shallow degrees of virtuality.
With increasing virtuality, the importance of trust increases. Thus, a fully remote team needs to have a high level of trust for team members to engage in information exchange, open discussion, etc.
Managers and team leaders can increase team trust by modeling risky behavior. Through this, they will set standards about what behavior is acceptable and what not. Achieving high levels of team trust also requires leaders to let go at the moment and watch the team swim. Of course, this will only work if the team has been guided and properly taught before.
Another team process that influences the performance of remote teams is documentation of communication. The relationship between team trust and performance becomes less strong the more communication is documented. Originally, we might consider this to be counter-intuitive. Documentation could be understood as a way to take notes to check on employees afterward. However, while it might be true that documentation in the research setting was understood as a written report of communication in some companies, documentation is used in this way. Hence, every text-based communication channel is considered a form of documentation.
This implies that teams who rely on text-based communication tools such as slack and email need to have less trust between them to achieve the same level of performance than teams who predominantly communicate using video conferencing software. When communicating using slack or email, the textual trace left provides a safety net for remote workers to engage in risky behavior.
The notion that remote teams have it more difficult to perform at a high level is well-established. Contextual process, task-member-media compatibility, and temporal dynamics influence how difficult it is for remote team members to work together. Key processes to have in place is trust and documentation of communication. Documentation of processes compensates for lack of trust.
Evidence from practice
A common theme in remote work conferences is the need to overcommunicate. Documenting is one part of this document process. For example, Gitlab talks about its handbook-first-approach, and Zapier includes documentation in its remote work survival guide.
Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1151–1177. doi: 10.1037/apl0000113.
Kirkman, B. L., & Mathieu, J. E. (2005). The dimensions and antecedents of team virtuality. Journal of Management, 31(5), 700–718. doi: 10.1177/0149206305279113.