Building trust in a distributed workplace: 11 Effective Strategies

Trust is the foundation of any successful team, but it can be especially challenging to build remotely. With the lack of face-to-face interaction and the potential for miscommunication, it's important to be intentional about building trust with distributed employees.

But don't worry, there are strategies and steps you can take — 11 of them, in fact. From clear communication and setting expectations to fostering a sense of belonging, these steps will help you create a team that is high-performing, effective, and culture-driven. So, if you're struggling to build trust in your remote team, keep reading, and you'll find the solution you've been looking for.

What do we mean by trust in the workplace?

Trust is the secret sauce to every successful workplace. Put simply, it means your team members have confidence in each other's abilities and believe that everyone is working towards the same goal. Trust is the glue that holds the team together and allows for open communication, effective collaboration, and a positive culture.

Here are five examples of professional relationships based on trust:

  1. A manager who gives their team autonomy to make decisions and trusts them to complete tasks on time and to a high standard.
  2. A team member who is open and transparent about their progress on a project and is willing to admit when they need help.
  3. A team that has regular check-ins and open communication.
  4. A company that values and rewards honesty, integrity, and reliability, which establishes trust with customers, clients, and employees.
  5. A team leader who actively listens to team members, takes their opinions into account, and shows genuine interest in their wellbeing.

Practical vs. emotional trust

Trust in the workplace is a two-sided coin. One side is practical trust, and the other is emotional trust. Practical trust is essential for the structure and function of any team. It's about reliability, meeting deadlines, and following through on commitments. Practical trust boils down to whether your team trusts you’ll get a task done on time, answer their emails, or show up for a meeting.

Emotional trust is what makes the team more enjoyable to work with. It's about being open, genuine, and supportive of each other. It’s not as easily measurable as practical trust, as it’s about creating genuine connections, building relationships, and being comfortable sharing ideas and suggesting new courses of action.

Why does trust matter when we work together?

The 2022 Edelman trust barometer shows that 77% of employees trust their employer and that business as a category is the most trusted institution out there. These results show that the relationship between employees and employers, managers and direct reports, and coworkers are one of the essential pillars of society as a whole and most certainly a foundation of the success of any organization.

In a global landscape where trust is lacking on almost all fronts, companies that want to succeed, grow and retain an engaged employee base need to double down on nurturing trust and relationship-building practices.

How to build trust in a distributed team in 11 steps

We know that trust-building isn’t a simple and short process, nor something you can give a quick recipe for. But there are steps you can take today to open the gates for trust and start building a stronger remote team:

1. Establish effective communication

There’s no single step more important for workplace trust than communication. Successful, trust-based remote companies are intentional about communication practices, making it easy to share information between employees, managers, and leadership in all directions. Additionally, building a culture of trust requires leaders and executives to show transparency and communicate company plans and directions openly.

So if you want your team members to trust the company, their managers, and leaders, revise your strategy and provide the following resources to everyone in the company:

  • Company’s mission statement and vision
  • Company core values
  • Company culture statement and company goals
  • Employee handbook
  • Department-based knowledge-sharing docs
  • “User manuals” for every employee
  • Guidelines for remote communication

2. Promote vulnerability

In today’s workplace, employees show high levels of trust in work environments where they feel they can bring their true selves to work. In other words, when employees feel safe to be vulnerable and are comfortable sharing concerns with managers and coworkers, they are more likely to be motivated, satisfied, and do their best work.

Psychological safety is one of the essential characteristics of high-performing teams. Read our guide to building strong remote teams >>>

Vulnerability means not only sharing when someone’s personal life is preventing them from doing their job at a particular moment, but it’s also related to items at work. In high-trust environments, employees feel safe to make mistakes, ask questions, and seek help with their tasks and work projects.

Make sure your team is aware that asking questions, needing help, and sharing information aren’t things managers will punish but just the opposite. Nobody knows all the answers all the time, and one of the best ways to build employee trust is to show them that vulnerability is accepted and celebrated.

3. Nurture a positive workplace culture

Company culture is intrinsically linked to how employees feel about their work, whether they are happy, and how motivated and productive they are. And in remote work, culture is even more important for everything from team bonding to building trust.

If your team is aligned with the organizational culture and company values, they’re not just likely to show hard work — but also engagement and a high level of trust. Get your remote team acquainted with the culture, goals, and values of the company, and design the employee experience around it.

We made a 10-step guide to building a positive culture your team will love. Read it here >>>

4. Help your remote teams connect

Connections are a cornerstone of trust and strong relationships, and in distributed teams, they aren’t always easy to make. In fact, 44% of remote workers say their biggest challenge when working remotely is connecting to their peers.

It’s hardly a surprise — with virtual communication, the ability to rely on eye contact, emotional intelligence, and body language to discern someone’s attitude is slim to none, and it can make it hard to know whether a colleague is just being nice or we can actually rely on them and create a long-lasting bond.

So what can help remote teams build trust and personal relationships? Believe it or not, it’s face-to-face team meetings and get-togethers. Organizing a company offsite or team event a couple of times a year can help employees know each other better and foster connections that will serve them year-round.

Give your employees the space they need to meet, connect, and collaborate whenever they need to. Gable lets employees find and book a workspace nearby, while People and Workplace teams get to set budgets, manage usage, and get real-time insights and data on their distributed workplace. See how we do it >>>

5. Train your remote managers

The relationships between managers and direct reports are a vital pillar of trust, communication, and efficiency in the workplace. So if a lack of trust appears in these relations, it makes it difficult for employees to feel connected to their work, be engaged, and experience high satisfaction.

Most commonly, trust issues happen due to team leaders engaging in micromanaging, decision-making that isn’t transparent, and demonstrating a lack of trust in their remote employees. If your company is still new and adapting to virtual-first work environments, support managers in the transition and provide them with resources and training on open communication, mutual respect, and guidance on managing remote workers.

6. Show that you care about work-life balance

After a global pandemic and a multi-year experiment with remote work, we now know that the lines between our personal and professional lives aren’t always clear and fixed. And while the benefits we reap from flexible schedules and non-linear work days are great, for some people, they can lead to burnout.

For companies worldwide, this means that paying attention to employee wellbeing is no longer a nice-to-have: it’s an essential step to ensure trust, employee satisfaction, and, yes, profitability. To prevent burnout from creeping up on your remote employees, give every member of your team clear instructions on how to achieve work-life balance, use their PTO, and utilize the perks and benefits your company provides.

Don’t know which perks and benefits your distributed team needs the most? Read our guide to the most wanted perks for remote teams >>>

7. Take feedback

Trust, just like engagement or the employee retention rate, can be calculated and measured. The best way to do it is to foster a culture of constructive criticism, where employees can voice their opinions.

Apart from one-on-one meetings and check-ins with managers, implement employee engagement surveys, pulse surveys, and onboarding feedback questionnaires. On top of that, human resources departments should add touchpoints during or immediately after a recession, restructuring, or major organizational change.

In these feedback surveys, design questions around trust to get a pulse on how employees feel about their work, their teams, and their superiors. Catching signs of low trust early can help People teams implement changes faster and turn the situation around.

8. Invest in your team’s growth

A simple (not easy) way to increase trust in your employee base? Provide ample opportunities for them to grow, and reward those who show the highest levels of collaboration, trust, and teamwork.

Employees value professional development and find it to be one of the essential elements of a prospective career, especially so when they are remote. So if you provide opportunities to upskill and grow your team, you’ll increase employee engagement; but if you fast-track collaborators and team players on the development path, you’ll also incentivize your team to embrace a high-trust environment.

9. Lead by example

Simply put, companies that say one thing but do another fail to build trusting relationships and often experience high levels of disengagement and even employee turnover. If you promote vulnerability as an official policy but then berate team members when they ask for help, employees will catch that, and they won’t feel safe talking openly when they struggle.

There’s no documentation to create or a clever tip to follow here. It’s very simple: have leaders embody and show the official company policies and values in everyday work. If you want employees to use their PTO to recharge and relax, have managers do the same without responding to their emails. Practice what you preach company-wide, and show employees it’s not all talk.

10. Show appreciation

Employee recognition is one of the most effective ways to improve trust-building in a company — and it doesn’t have to cost much, either. Everyone loves feeling appreciated and valued, so your remote team is no exception. Recognition helps employees feel better about their work, experience less stress about daily work and incentivizes teams to trust one another more and work better together.

Start by trying out some low-cost employee incentive ideas, like custom emojis, Slack of Fame, or virtual celebrations after a project has wrapped up, and then move on to a more formal employee recognition program.

11. Extend trust to your team

Strong relationships begin with managers, and it’s their responsibility to start the circle of good faith and trust. In remote teams, trust can take many forms, from not checking whether your employees are working to relying on them to cover for you when needed.

If you’re working on building a culture of trust in your organization, start by implementing the steps above and demonstrating mutual trust to your team. Then, take it one step at a time.

Building trust takes time

Building trust in a remote team is like baking a cake, it takes time to mix the ingredients and get the recipe just right. But once you've nailed it, you'll have a team that's more productive than a bakery on National Doughnut Day.

Clear communication, regular check-ins, and setting expectations are the sugar, flour, and eggs of this recipe. Trust is the icing on the cake, and it's essential for a team that's high-performing, effective, and culture-driven. So, don't give up on your trust-building efforts, keep stirring the pot, and your team will soon be enjoying the sweet taste of success.

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Andrea Rajic