Building trust from a distance

content build virtual remote trust relationships

Working on hybrid teams, when we’re unlikely to physically meet with the rest of the team for a while, is now increasingly common. This can be a real challenge for people starting a new job under these circumstances.

How can you gain credibility with your new line manager and your colleagues when you cannot gauge their character, intentions and reactions in person?

‘A lot depends on the company, on how they onboard and engage with new recruits remotely – some are very good at it indeed,’ says Andi Lonnen FCCA, chief executive of Finance Training Academy.

Knowing how to build and maintain trusting work relationships is essential for any new starter, but it’s more difficult to do this virtually.

‘Unfortunately, the burden of initiating those relationships and building rapport with others is often left on the remote employee,’ says Amie Lawrence, director of global innovation for career development consultants PSI Services.

So what can you do if you are left to your own devices?

How trust is developed

First, it may be helpful to understand the five key ingredients of trust.

Business psychologist Jan P De Jonge explains: ‘First and foremost, there’s integrity – this is about being honest and truthful. The second most important ingredient is competence – the extent to which a person has the technical knowledge and interpersonal skills to deliver what they claim to be able to deliver. The third ingredient is consistency – in terms of predictable performance and sound judgment in dealing with a range of situations.’

While these three ingredients are central to building trust, De Jonge also mentions two additional ones: loyalty and openness.

‘People who are loyal and who openly share their ideas, concerns, perspectives and feelings with others are likely to be perceived as trustworthy.’

The first few days

Usually, mutual trust develops after you and others have had a chance to spend some time interacting with each other. But first, you will need to initiate contact with your new team as soon as possible.

‘Ask to meet your co-workers for an informal online coffee chat to say hi,’ recommends Lonnen. ‘Or record and send them a two-minute video introducing yourself. You can also do a “personal postcard” with images of yourself, your hobbies and your family, and ask others to do the same.’

This will allow your new colleagues to put a face and voice to your name, and they will get to know you as a human being rather than a digital entity.

Psychologically speaking, familiarity inspires trust.

‘The more you know about someone, the greater your confidence in that person, and this helps create mutual understanding and even loyalty,’ says De Jonge.

Spend the first few days getting a feel for your new employer’s work culture, too, to find out how people communicate day-to-day. In online meetings, observe the way in which they ask questions and share ideas, and how they give feedback.

Also, ask your new line manager how often they expect to be communicated with and what their preferred method is: email, phone or online.

‘How quickly will they want you to respond when they contact you? Who should you contact if you need further information or help with various tasks? These questions will help you find out very quickly what is expected from you,’ says Lonnen.

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The loop of trust

This concept centres around the idea that trust is developed incrementally, with the successful outcome of each action serving to reinforce it.

Simply put, what you do from now on – all your actions and behaviours – should be up to such standard that the others’ confidence in you grows day by day.

Being accessible, responsive and reliable is key, so check your emails regularly, respond promptly during work hours, and have your phone on hand should anyone need to get in touch with you.

‘If you can’t respond immediately, it’s always a good idea to confirm to the sender that you’ve received their message – in whatever form that message was conveyed to you,’ adds De Jonge.

It should go without saying that you must do your best work – always.

The quantity and quality of the work you produce when working remotely needs to be the same as when working in the office. Putting the same effort and care into your daily tasks will show that you are competent and capable no matter the circumstances.

Lawrence adds: ‘Bear in mind that you’ve been trusted from the off with a higher level of autonomy – the freedom to plan and complete your work – than in an office setting, so you must prove yourself to keep that trust.’

Lawrence also recommends that you prove yourself as someone who is ‘achievement-oriented’.

‘If you drive action, follow through and are accountable, you’ll be more effective at building trusting relationship with your leaders and colleagues.’

All of this will allow them to perceive you as consistent and predictable, as someone who can always be counted on and who won’t let others down.

Be consistent and honest in the messages you give out too. For example, never promise what you can’t deliver, like saying yes to a deadline that is a day away when you know it will take you three days to get things done.

Additional advice on behaviour during video meetings

‘One aspect of communication that will boost your credibility is the extent to which you are seen as open,’ says De Jonge. ‘Adopt a positive body language in front of the camera: sit with open arms, open palms, an alert gaze, and nod when you are interacting with the other people present.’ This also shows that you are paying attention.

You also need to be easy to read, so if you suddenly go quiet, explain why – perhaps you’re struggling with an idea or taking notes? This way, people won’t be drawing incorrect conclusions.

Try to imagine how you are ‘seen’ too.

De Jonge says: ‘How you look on camera helps you come across as professional, and thus more credible. So raise the camera to an eye-height level so that the others aren’t forced to look up your nostrils or admire your ceiling.’

Author: Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist

This article was first published in Student Accountant in October 2021

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