Virtual Meetings and the Three Elements of Trust
January 31, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

Screens on top of world map

Do you manage a work team with one or more members who participate remotely? Or perhaps you work in such a team. According to Wayne Turmel, a long-time Communispond faculty member and an authority on managing remotely, there’s about an 80% chance you do both. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, WebEx, Skype (and FaceTime), instant messaging, telephone, and a host of other technologies make it increasingly unnecessary for members of work teams to sit in the same location. Technologies that overcome distance (and even time!) in human communication promise your organization can allocate and assign human resources without regard to location, which means without regard to travel expenses. And when have you ever known an organization to ignore an opportunity to avoid expenses?

And yet… I am willing to bet that most people who work remotely feel alienated, out of touch, disrespected, and unappreciated. Furthermore, most people who manage remote workers feel they aren’t managing them at all. They don’t feel like they know what these workers are actually doing because they can’t see them doing it. In most organizations, the experiences of working remotely or managing remote workers leave a great deal to be desired. I think this is because we approach remote communication simply as an opportunity to distribute and receive information. 

But management and collaboration require more than just bare information exchange. People who try to manage by email learn that lesson very quickly. To manage people effectively, you need to be able to discern facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and hundreds of other signals you may not even consciously realize you’re receiving. The density of these signals add up to a communication medium’s richness. The richest medium is in-person conversation. The least rich is probably something like remote messaging via Morse code.

(As an aside, I suspect that even when we finally are able to send full-motion, full-color, high-fidelity, real-time holograms of ourselves to each other, we will still complain the medium isn’t rich enough. I wouldn’t bet against the possibility that some of our communication is actually achieved by subliminal energy, invisible auras, or even subconsciously detected odors.)  

Whatever our nonverbal signals are, they are needed in order to convey confidence, sincerity, conviction, and all the qualities we use to discern trust. If I had to point to one major shortcoming in working and managing remotely, I would say it is a lack of trust.

In the workplace, trust largely consists of three elements:

  • common purpose
  • competence
  • motive 

Trust is achieved when all three elements are aligned. We discern these three elements by interpreting (often intuitively) the myriad signals we receive during in-person communication. When communicating virtually, we need to consciously cultivate and communicate these elements. In my next post, I want to suggest some techniques for aligning these three elements when you can’t communicate in person.

At Communispond, we’ve done a lot of work on this subject. This page has links to a number of illuminating webinars we have recorded on the subjects of online meetings, online presentations, remote collaboration, and the pitfalls of communicating in un-rich media. Help yourself. In the meantime, if you have any stories about virtual meetings or any techniques you have discovered for building trust in remote teams, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments.