Trust in Remote Teams

Trust is the Foundation

I firmly believe that trust is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated aspects of our culture. Trust is the essential building block of any successful relationship. And our work is, at its core, built on a foundation of personal relationships.

Unfortunately, the traditional workplace dynamic is designed to erode trust. Leaders believe competition leads to better work, so we are placed in opposition to our teammates. Leaders say that they believe collaboration leads to success, but they build incentive structures based on individual results. This puts us into situations that make trusting the people we need to rely on incredibly difficult. After all, only one of us can get that promotion. Right?

That is a ridiculous way to lead a team.

Teams succeed when every member is working towards a common goal, not when they are competing against each other. This is exacerbated in remote teams.

When you work remotely, you can’t see what your team is doing. You can’t insert yourself into every conversation. You have to trust that each member of the team is working towards your common goals. That leaders of remote teams work to engender explicit trust at every level of the organization is imperative. As a member of the team, you have to behave in a way that shows that you trust your teammates to do their jobs well. If you can’t do that, everything else will fall apart.

Trust Starts with You

Most articles like this would say that this kind of trust must start with the top, with leadership. I disagree. I believe trust must start with the individual. With you.

We’ve all felt a version of imposter syndrome at some point. Good things start to happen to us and we can’t help but feel that we haven’t earned it. That we’re not good enough. That we don’t deserve the wonderful opportunity that has been presented to us.

In a remote work situation, those fears are likely to be exacerbated. We’ve been told that we’re being judged solely on output. That we can work when, where, and how we want. But can we really? Is that really true?

These promises are so far removed from our previous working experiences that they are nearly impossible to accept. At the same time, we’re now working in isolation. We can’t see what our coworkers are doing on a day to day basis. We may only communicate with some of our coworkers via weekly email updates, if at all. Even if we accept that we are being judged based on our output, we no longer have access to the vanity metrics we’ve previously used to help judge our place in an organization.

These fears are normal. The first thing we need to do to excel in a remote team is to come to terms with them. Instead of running from your feelings of inadequacy, accept that they are just a part of who you are right now.

Next, I encourage you to share those fears with your team and your superiors. The likelihood is that everyone you work with has faced them too. Perhaps they are still facing them. Your team should be able to help you through these fears. They will reassure you when you are uneasy. You will be able to work through these challenges together instead of on your own.

Your team should be your support network not your competition. If your team is unable or unwilling to support you, they probably are not the type of people you want to work with, or for, anyway. Making yourself vulnerable by sharing your fears will help your team trust you. Over time, you will accept yourself and gain confidence in your abilities.

Trusting yourself and being vulnerable with your team will provide a solid foundation for the kind of trust remote teams need to be successful, but you need to go further.

We’ve become a very “me” driven society. Especially when it comes to work. We are constantly charting our next big move. We’re trying to figure out how we can use our work to look as good as possible for our next employer. We’re trying to collect personal accomplishments like Pokemon.

When we work this way, we are putting our personal interests ahead of those of our team. This is natural, necessary, and admirable on some levels. At times, you should prioritize yourself and your family.

However, we must be careful. When we put our needs above those of our team we are reducing the potential for trust. When we act selfishly, we do harm to the trust we’ve created.

Think of that coworker you hate. The one that takes 2 hour lunch breaks and prioritizes personal performance above team performance. Are you willing to sacrifice to help him, and by extension your team, succeed? Probably not.

First, you should be able to take 2 hour lunch breaks whenever you want. You’re an adult. Performance isn’t tied to attendance for that vast majority of jobs. Focusing on attendance is, in most cases, poor leadership.

Second, most of your negative feelings toward that person are likely derived from your lack of trust. You don’t trust your co-worker to do what is the best interest of the team. You believe they will sell you out to advance themselves at any moment. Don’t be that guy.

I think the best way to avoid behaving selfishly is to do your best to align your interests with those of your company and your team as much as possible. Your leaders can, and should, encourage this through institutional means, but you can do so by changing the way you think about your work.

Are you thinking about your work in terms of what you accomplished or what we accomplished? Are you thinking about your work today in terms of how it helps you achieve your goals or how it helps your team achieve its goals? When someone interrupts you, are they keeping you from doing your work or are you helping your team complete a valuable task?

Fight the urge to think about your work in terms of you. Think about your work in terms of us.

Trust Your Team

Trusting relationships are essential to the success of remote teams. If you are constantly worried that your teammates are doing poor work or are acting out of self interest, it’s highly unlikely you will do your job well. Distrust just takes too much energy. It’s exhausting

If we accept that trusting relationships are the foundation of successful remote teams, we must go beyond learning to trust ourselves and be trustworthy teammates. We have to trust each other.

When I hear people talk about their jobs, I often hear them complain about the work the other departments are doing. Designers love to complain about their visions being ruined by a marketing team that needs that one dumb feature, or engineering teams who refuse to build products to their specifications. This is counterproductive. Stop. No, seriously, stop.

A design director I know made it a point to sit in on every marketing meeting he could. He didn’t do so because he wanted to learn. He didn’t do so because he wanted to be a resource. He did so because he was terrified that the marketing team would do something dumb to destroy his product vision. This is not isolated to designers, people of all disciplines are guilty of this behavior.

If you live in fear what the other teams in your company might do, you are doing it wrong.

If teams within your company have adversarial relationships, you are doing it wrong. Teams succeed when they work to achieve common goals. They fail when they work against each other. Stop being so damned stubborn and learn to work together.

If members of your team are unwilling to work towards common goals, they shouldn’t be on your team. It doesn’t matter how good they are at their jobs. People who place the goals of their discipline above the goals of the team are a cancer. If at all possible, don’t work with them.

That fearful design director was actively behaving in a way that communicates his lack of trust for his teammates. His behavior also makes it incredibly difficult to do his own job well. He’s spending so much time trying to do other people’s jobs, that he can’t possibly focus on his own.

This behavior is almost impossible in remote settings. You can’t interject yourself into other people’s conversations unless you are invited. To work successfully in remote teams, you have to be willing to step back and let other people do their jobs. You have to trust them.

That doesn’t mean you will always agree on how to move a project forward or how to achieve a goal. If everyone on your team always agrees, that’s a problem. You should disagree. Sometimes those disagreements will be passionate. They should never be personal. You need to trust that your teammates want your work to succeed just as much as you do. They just have a different opinion than you do about how to achieve your goals.

Disagreements are a really good way to show that you trust your team. When you are considering a path forward, have a healthy and vibrant debate. When your team makes a decision, shut the fuck up and do everything you can to make that decision work. People will trust you when you behave that way. When people trust you, they are more likely to behave in a trustworthy manner.

Sports are easy example here. Most basketball players want to be chosen to take that last second shot to win the game. Only one can be. Having a discussion in the huddle about who should take that shot is fine, but if someone else gets chosen you have to accept that. Your team’s play will only succeed if you work in concert with one another. You have to do what you can to help your teammate make the shot. Your company is no different.

Remote teams require trust to function well. Show your teammates that you trust them.

When you don’t trust your team you make this puppy sad. Don’t make this puppy sad.

Lead with Trust

Adopting a mentality of trust and backing that mentality up with action can go a long way toward creating an environment that is conducive to successful remote work. At the same time, leadership must play a key role in building a culture that can take full advantage of the potential of remote work.

Managers attempt to control subordinates through fear. Great leaders guide their tribes with trust.

Most “leaders” I’ve encountered approach their jobs from a position of fear. A leader’s success is tied to their team’s ability to perform at a high level. For that to happen, each member of the team must perform at a high level. As a result, leaders feel the need to monitor the behavior of their teammates.

With rise of the internet, working in an office is completely unnecessary for most jobs. Because leaders live in fear of their employees failure to work, they latch onto this outdated vestige of the past. These leaders simply don’t trust that their employees will do their jobs unless they are watched.

Leaders also try to take advantage of their team members fear of poor reviews, losing their jobs, or missing out on promotions. These leaders use their employees fear to encourage a desired behavior. They believe that if their employees are afraid enough, they will do their best work. But that’s not how we process fear. Fear is debilitating. Fear decreases the quantity and quality of our work. The best performers behave confidently and fearlessly.

Some leaders try to use fear to motivate remote teams. We don’t all work effectively on the same schedules. We don’t all work effectively in the same way. We definitely won’t be able to do deep work if we are expected to respond immediately to every interruption. Yet you constantly see managers enact policies that attempt to monitor and control their employees work habits and schedules. This is stupid. Trust that your employees are as committed to the success of the team as you are.

Fear is a self fulfilling belief and behavior. People tend to live up or down to the expectations other people have of them. If employees feel that their leaders only trust them to do their jobs when they are monitored, they will likely only do their jobs when they are monitored. If, on the other hand, you trust your employees to do their jobs well on their own terms, they will likely exceed your expectations. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be on your team anyway.

As a leader, you have to be willing to trust your team for remote work to be beneficial. You have to give your team members the space to use their skills to help the team. As a team member, you should push against policies that seek to control when, where, and how you do your job. You should encourage your leaders when they adopt policies that allow for greater freedom.

Craft an Environment of Trust

Beyond actually trusting your employees, leaders can do a lot to encourage a trusting environment for remote workers. First, leaders should clearly communicate the expectations they have for their employees.

  • What are the boundaries that you want to set for your team?
  • Are you judging solely on results or do employees need to work a minimum number of hours?
  • Can we truly work at any time or do we need to be available for certain hours of the day?
  • What are your expectations for responding to email and other messages?

Once you’ve set those boundaries, you’ve got to fucking honor them. Don’t say you judge based on output, then get mad when someone only works 20 hours. You can get mad if the output is poor, but you have no right to complain about the number of hours it takes to produce the work.

If your leaders don’t honor the commitments they make to you, they are bad leaders.

Once leaders set clear expectations, they must give timely feedback to the members of their team. This is always true, but especially so in remote teams. Because you are resisting the urge to monitor your team, it can be hard for them to know if they are living up to your standards or not.

At Tortuga, our CEO, Fred, has adopted a rule when it comes to giving feedback. He meets with each member of the team 1 on 1 every week. Every 6 months, we have “performance reviews.” If he has a piece of criticism for an employee that he has not voiced prior to a “performance review,” that is a failure on the part of leadership, not the employee. Any criticism not discussed prior to a “performance review” may not be discussed during a “performance review.” (I put performance review in quotes because these meetings are less about reviewing what has been done in the past and more about previewing what is to be done in the future.)

This means no criticism should ever come as a surprise to a Tortuganaut. We know when we’re doing our jobs well and we get tactful nudges when there is room for improvement. Instead of living in fear of what we might have done wrong in past, we can focus on doing the best job possible right now and in the future.

Reward Trustworthy Behavior

Promoting trust within a team should extend to compensation as well. If leaders primarily reward employees for their individual efforts, some employees will inevitably behave in an untrustworthy manner. They will prioritize short term selfish behaviors ahead of what is good for the team.

If I am rewarded based on the number of designs I send to the factory, what incentive do I have to make sure they are the right designs? What incentive do I have to help members of the marketing communicate the value of or products more consistently? What incentive do I have to help our concierges answer a difficult or unusual question from one of our customers?

The long term success of our team is based on what we can build together, not what we can do as individuals. Because trust is so essential to the success of a remote team, leaders should make sure they are rewarding teammates in a manner that incentivizes trustworthy behaviors.

Most companies spend a lot of time setting goals. They set goals for the company, then compel employees to set goals for themselves. These employee goals are focused on moving the needle forward for the company. Employees are treated as tools to reach company goals. Employees are human beings, not tools. They deserve to be treated as such.

That the individuals within a team align their interests with the interests of the team is essential. Each individual should make the team’s goals their most important individual goals.

To truly build a culture of trust, the company must be willing to do the same thing for the members of the team that they ask of them. Company goals should be aligned with the goals of the individual members of the team.

The company should include teammates in the goal setting process. They should understand the individual goals of each teammate. To the fullest extent possible, these individual goals should be incorporated into the company goals. Good Leaders behave in a way that proves they are actively and seriously invested in helping teammates fulfill their goals.

Our companies ask a lot of their employees and give far too little back in return. To create a culture of trust leaders must show that they are actively investing in their employees. Salary and other traditional forms of compensation are not enough. On their own, these rewards breed untrustworthy behavior. Aligning team goals with individual goals breeds trust.

Remote Work Doesn’t Work Without Trust

For a remote company to be successful, it must be built on a foundation of trust. That must start with you trusting yourself as an individual. That trust must then be extended to every member of your team. You must learn to believe that your teammates are working in your best interest. Especially when you disagree with them. That trust must then be nurtured explicitly by leadership through things like compensation structures and implicitly through behavior that shows leaders trust the team.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about trust. That may seem out of place in the context of the learning to work remotely. I have done so because I believe remote teams cannot effectively function without trust. Sadly, trust is not something that is actively fostered in most workplaces.

To make remote work a reality for more people, that must change. We, as individuals, teams, and leaders, must actively engage in creating cultures based on trust. If we don’t, it doesn’t really matter what one does to learn how to work remotely. You will fail as an individual and as a team.


On Your Terms is a publication by Tortuga, makers of the ultimate travel backpack.

Source: Medium:Remote Working
Trust in Remote Teams

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