How to Build Trust in Remote Teams

Building trust can transform toxic workplace cultures. Here's how managers can help build trust in remote teams.


“I believe that all human progress begins with trust.” This was something Frances Frei said to me in a recent conversation we had about transforming toxic workplace cultures. And research seems to support this belief.

In one Harvard study, employees in high-trust companies reported:

  • 50 percent higher productivity
  • 40 percent less burnout
  • 74 percent less stress
  • and 76 percent more engagement

Let’s face it, in today’s high-collaboration environment, it’s hard enough to build trust in teams in person. In a study of 10,000 individuals, workplace relationship conflict was one of the two most-cited challenges workers faced prior to Covid-19. Now that many of us are working remotely from one another as a result of the pandemic, it’s even harder. While the flexibility of remote work certainly has its benefits, something valuable is lost when you and your colleagues work apart. Proximity does matter. Spontaneous interaction is primarily how we get to know one another and build a sense of community in the workplace.

But remote workforces aren’t something new. Companies such as Buffer have been fully remote for years—and proven it can work.

Here’s how to build trust on remote teams.

Managers will have to let go of their reliance on time and place

Managers, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is you’ll undoubtedly find some of your team members are working fewer hours than they were in the office. The good news is, they are likely still meeting the standards of quality and productivity.

I have always said that time and place are poor indicators of employee success. They are a lazy manager’s measure. Just think about it: it would be ridiculous for you to say one person is performing better than another, simply because they are in the office more. Right?

Remote work provides an opportunity for managers to foster a level of trust with the team members they may never have been afforded in the office—that is, to choose when and how they get their work done. Results are what matter. The currency of work is in what value individual members can add, consistently and reliably.

Embrace the fact you cannot overcommunicate

On the flip side of working less, some people are finding remote work to be further blurring the boundary between work and home. Rather than working less, some of the seemingly most dedicated remote employees are working after hours or on weekends, resulting in an insidious form of burnout.

However, I don’t believe that to be the result of overcommunication. Even prior to Covid-19, many managers were failing to provide the guidance, structure, and support necessary for direct reports to succeed. Most people at work weren’t communicating enough with either managers or fellow colleagues. Why would that be different now that they’re working remotely?

I believe at least part of the solution to this issue is more communication: regular, structured, and substantive. Make it clear people should speak up if they need help or if they are feeling overwhelmed. After all, expressing vulnerability is another factor in building trust. It’s the manager’s job to support their people. It’s the responsibility of team members to help one another get the work done. This is no different.

Get to know more about who people are—as remote workers

A lot has been said about virtual happy hours and using Zoom for more than your weekly team meeting. In my opinion, there are better and worse ways to foster more personal connections while working remotely. There are plenty of pitfalls to avoid with these kinds of team-building activities (remote or not): making them a burdensome obligation, allowing them to become a distraction, or generating yet another thing adding to the social media noise.

Sure, get to know the people whom you’re working with. At least enough to be polite. But more important than that? Getting to know who they are as remote workers.

Engage in some self-reflection and ask those whom you work closest with to do the same. Which types of communication do you prefer to receive as an email? A phone call? A text? Do you check your email at certain points throughout the day, or is your inbox always an open tab in your browser? What types of updates do you need from your colleagues? Which information may be less important to you? Do you find yourself longing to socialize while eating your lunch? Or would you rather be left alone?

Understanding all of these things about yourself and your colleagues will go a long way in working better and better together.

Avoid the temptation to juggle

The downside of flexibility is that, by definition, it provides less structure. We’re all making more day-to-day decisions about which projects to prioritize, which to put on the back burner, and which to delegate. The temptation to juggle a million things at once—so you don’t let anybody down—is higher than ever.

But don’t fall for the temptation. After all, if you’re juggling, you’re bound to drop some balls at some point.

Multitasking might make it seem like you’re working harder and better. It may even work for a while. But inevitably, it will become too much. You’ll let someone down. And in the midst of feeling overwhelmed and overburdened you may shut down and stop accepting new projects altogether. This is what I call siege mentality. It kills opportunities to build trust, foster working relationships, and improve your reputation at work.

So, don’t juggle. Instead, become known for delivering on one concrete thing at a time—no matter how big or small. In fact, the smaller and more manageable you can make each deliverable, the better! The more you deliver for people, the more they will want to deliver for you. Embracing a true service mindset does wonders for building your reputation and influence in the workplace.

Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: