Trusting Virtual Teams: Has Anything Changed in 15 Years?

Last Updated Aug 30, 2010 7:27 PM EDT

15 years ago, an article appeared in Harvard Business Review which addressed a brand new phenomenon- remote or "virtual" teams. Charles Handy wrote Trust And the Virtual Organization in 1995, and it's interesting to see what's changed, if anything, since then.

Hard to believe that in 1995, over 90% of people actually worked where their company had locations. Email was still new (people were actually proud of AOL accounts, boys and girls, and brontosaurs thundered across the land). To see each other via video took thousands of dollars worth of equipment and a lot of patience. Still, it was obvious that technology was going to allow people to communicate differently. So what did Dr. Handy focus on?

Trust. Human connections. Whether people believed that good things were happening when you couldn't actually be there to see them with your own eyes. Belief in each others common goals, motives and competence was more important than the technology you use. These were vaguely heretical notions at the time. You didn't need to trust your people completely when you could just peer over the cubicle to see what they were up to.

It's easy for us to now nod smugly and recognize the truth in those words, at least in theory. We know that in general it's true that we can't manage through control, but have to rely on trust and influence. Some day we'll be able to do that, just as soon as we get our team whipped into shape.

Just to review, Handy had 7 core beliefs about trust:

  1. Trust is not need proof of the other party's commitment to common goals and evidence that they have your back.
  2. Trust needs boundaries. Clearly define what success looks like and then get out of the way so they can achieve it.
  3. Trust demands learning. Times and technology change. Individuals have to constantly learn new skills, and the team must share in that learning.
  4. Trust is tough. As my daughter says so eloquently, "no duh". It's hard to trust, and breaking trust has consequences.
  5. Trust needs bonding. Despite pure intentions, trust develops through bonding and contact. Silos are appropriate only for corn and nuclear missiles.
  6. Trust needs touch. Handy clings to the quaint notion that teams need face to face human contact. I don't disagree, but it's not always possible in our modern work environment. "Management by walking around" needs to be augmented by "Management by virtually walking around". Get permission and budget to meet in person when you can, find ways to connect through technology when you can't.
  7. Trust requires leaders. Amen, brother.

Now that virtual teams have gone from future trend to our stark reality, how do you and your organization fare building the trust you need to compete and thrive?

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photo by flickr user Menage_a_Moi CC 2.0