How to Build Trust (Even When Remote)
“Our leadership team is floundering,” the woman told me over a video call. “We’re hybrid right now—everyone works part-time in the office and part-time at home. But even though we’re not fully remote anymore, our leaders are struggling to connect and communicate with their teams in this new, unfamiliar environment.”
The environment may be new, but effective leadership hasn’t changed. You still need to give clarity and direction, provide connection, and build trust. But how, when you can’t get together face-to-face? or you no longer have those chance informal encounters in the hall? or when all you see of the other person is a little square on your screen? How do you build trust?
Thankfully, as I’ve written before, the three components of trust have been abundantly studied and are well-understood. You build trust by demonstrating credibility (do you know what you’re doing?), authenticity (are you a real person?), and empathy (do you care about me?). Just like you always have. So, the good news is that you don’t need to learn new skills for a hybrid or remote environment, you simply need to apply them in a new context.
Below, you’ll find numerous practical ways you can communicate credibility, authenticity, and empathy to your remote teams and coworkers in order to build trust. But before reading, take a moment to jot down your own experience. You know your organization and your environment—how do you already demonstrate these three qualities? and how might you do even more?
Credibility: Do you know what you’re doing?
Maybe not… And frankly, that’s fair. Circumstances have changed so rapidly and frequently in the past few years that it’s impossible to have a firm grip on much—except for maybe the rollercoaster grab bar! Luckily, you don’t have to know everything, but you do need to demonstrate that you have the capacity to lead. Here are some suggestions:
Provide clear expectations regarding remote work. Letting others know what you expect of them and what they can expect from you, without ambiguity, is a gift. Especially for new hires, who often feel lost at sea beginning a new job remotely, the more you can “predict the future,” the better. “I don’t know the culture at this new company,” a client who recently changed jobs told me. “I can’t just look around and see what everyone else is doing.” Provide as much certainty as possible on what life as a remote employee looks like, what you do and do not expect, and specifically consider those norms that often go unstated.
Create protocols and rituals. When your meetings and projects follow consistent patterns, you create stability and safety … and you demonstrate that you know what you’re doing! Once you’ve created enough safety that people are getting bored, shake things up every once in awhile by throwing out the routine. But in times of change or when attempting to establish connections, routines are your friend.
Practice Leadership Presence. The skills outlined in my leadership presence guide (get it below) all apply over the phone and video. Briefly: be fully present, speak authoritatively, hold space, and listen.
Avoid detracting nonverbal habits. These five nonverbal habits—pulling in, avoiding eye contact, speaking too quickly or quietly, certain hand positions, and fidgeting—diminish your ability to convey credibility on video as well as in person. Some of them also affect your tone of voice, so they apply over the phone as well. Drop these habits! (Also… don’t pick your nose. A friend recently told me a certain colleague of hers regularly and unconsciously picked his nose on video meetings. Aack!)
Proofread emails. Sure, check your emails for typos, because those aren’t great for credibility. (Rihgt?) But beyond that, check them for clarity and tone. It’s super easy to shoot off an email and not realize how short-tempered you sound. Or, in an attempt to be clear, give way more details than necessary which bog the reader down. It might feel too time consuming, but communicating credibility is worth the few extra seconds.
Authenticity: Are you a real person?
Yes. Yes, you are. Hopefully, you didn’t need to be reminded. But when most of your interaction is online it can make you feel like we’re all just a bunch of robots. To build trust, you need to be real. What does that look like in a remote work context?
Show up. Be present. You can’t be present in person, which means it will take extra energy and focus to be fully and completely mentally present. Give the person you’re with your full attention, whether you’re typing an email, on the phone, or attending a video meeting. Stop multi-tasking. Just be.
Reveal your personality. I know you have one! Some days work can suck it right out of you maybe, but somewhere inside there’s the real you. Be your quirky, unique self. It’s refreshing to work with real human beings and not robots. Be authentic.
Add levity. Humor can work miracles in relationships and difficult situations, when used appropriately. You don’t have to be a stand-up comedian to lighten the mood. Even groan-worthy dad jokes can help. (Hopefully my husband isn’t reading this—he doesn’t need any encouragement!) Find the things you can joke and smile about. Showing that you have a sense of humor turns you into a real human being. And it doesn’t require being physically present!
Turn on your video. Let people see you. Get over your self-consciousness (it’s not about you!) and show your face, your eyes, your favorite mug, the Star Wars poster behind you, your cat walking across your desk, you know—show them you. “I feel like I’m talking into the void,” a client recently said. “It’s hard to be present or speak up in meetings when everyone’s video is off. I feel like I’m talking to myself.” Let others know there’s a real person listening.
Be vulnerable. Once you have established credibility, letting others see your faults and struggles can go a long way in building trust and camaraderie. You aren’t perfect. Why would you pretend to be? No one likes or trusts “perfect” people because they know they aren’t real. Vulnerability with credibility endears you to others.
Empathy: Do you care about me?
Yes, you probably do, but this is one people struggle to communicate the most remotely. How do you let others know you see and hear them … when you can’t see or hear them? How do you provide connection and a sense of belonging without the physical proximity? Here are some ideas:
Remember details. Especially when remote, it’s easy for things like birthdays and work anniversaries to slip by unnoticed. Remembering and acknowledging dates, events, and accomplishments can go a long way to creating a sense of connection and belonging.
Respect boundaries. Many people have said that working from home means they work all the time. “There’s no work-life balance,” a client recently told me. “It’s all work.” Create a healthier work culture by expecting people to STOP working at the end of the evening and doing so yourself. Suggest transition activities to your team members to mark the end of the day; for example, some people close their laptop lids, go for a walk around the block, write out their To Do List for the next day, say “I’m done for today” out loud, etc. Maintaining boundaries yourself and helping others do so demonstrates that you care.
Check in frequently. In an office, you make eye contact as you walk by a coworker’s desk, you nod as you pass each other in the hall, you chat in the breakroom. These brief, often nonverbal, opportunities to connect don’t exist in a remote environment. It’s a lot easier to avoid people you don’t want to talk to! But it’s a lot harder to feel connected to a team. You have to be proactive. Find ways to check in with members of your team regularly, both in groups and individually.
Provide informal spaces. One client recently said, “It feels like every interaction has to have a point now. You can’t ever just chat with someone. I’d feel awkward picking up the phone just to talk to a coworker when we’re all so busy, so of course I don’t. Being remote has sucked away the best part of my work: the people.” Make sure that time and space are dedicated to informal interactions. You might begin certain meetings with personal catch-up, dedicate a Slack channel to non-work-related banter, or plan virtual coffee dates. It takes intention, now, to create space for what used to happen naturally.
Try virtual coworking. Frankly, this sounds awful to me, but I have heard that some people love it: Schedule times when team members can jump on a Zoom call and simply do their own work… together. I personally can’t imagine anything more distracting than having a screenful of faces or a video camera in front of me while trying to work, but for some people, it provides motivation, consistency, and camaraderie. If that sounds like you or your team, go for it! (And I love you, but please leave me out of it!)
Remote work is here to stay! Even if you’re in an office, chances are you meet more frequently with clients, vendors, direct reports, and fellow coworkers remotely. You can still create healthy culture and relationships by cultivating trust. Practice demonstrating credibility, authenticity, and empathy even when you can’t meet face-to-face, for happier employees, increased productivity, and stronger teams.