Teams going virtual: why focusing on trust matters

Key Points

  1. To allow a virtual team to perform at its best, you should consider the role played by the trust shared between virtual teammates.
  2. Documenting interactions in virtual contexts is easy and helps handle the challenges of virtual teamwork, especially helping to establish and maintain trust among members.
  3. If you manage to build trusting relationships among teammates, you may facilitate more positive team attitudes, effective exchanges of information and higher team performance.

Have you ever worked in a virtual team? Collaborating with colleagues at distance is now very common, just look at the success of virtual team working tools such as Google Hangouts, Google Drive and more recently, Slack. Using these tools reduces the need for sending e-mails by facilitating the creation of an online space just for your team. Moreover, information can continuously flow between team members and documents can be easily stored. We don’t even need phone calls anymore.

Virtuality and teamwork: what do we want to know?

Breuer, Hüffmeier and Hertel (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of 52 studies which investigated the role of trust in virtual teams. They pulled together results from 1,850 teams – that’s data from more than 12,000 people! Participants in the studies were from student project teams and from professional teams from a range of different industries and across many job roles. The meta-analysis aimed to answer three clear questions:

  1. Is there a positive relationship between trust in virtual teams and team effectiveness?
  2. Does the importance of trust increase the more the team goes virtual?
  3. Does trust matter less if teams keep clear records of their communication?

Fact-check: trust matters more in virtual teams

Trust in teams helps people understand that everybody in the team is impacted by the actions, judgments and expectations of the other team members. While it is hard work to build trust in teams, one may assume it is even harder to trust each other when teams go virtual. In fact, working in the cloud (i.e. with high degree of virtuality) has specific characteristics:

Research has already demonstrated a positive relationship between trust and team performance in teams working face-to-face. The present meta-analysis shows a strong and positive relationship between trust and virtual team effectiveness, particularly on team attitudes and on the degree to which individuals are willing to share information and knowledge. So, when virtual teams recognize that they are struggling, investigating how much they trust each other is probably a good first action to take. On the other hand, the researchers found a moderate positive relationship between team trust and team performance (task and contextual performance), as measured subjectively either by team members or supervisors, or by objective indicators.

Virtuality is not all bad: keep track of interactions to maintain trust

Is virtual teamwork challenging for you? With the challenges of virtuality come also a number of opportunities. In fact, working in the cloud gives the chance to keep all information concerning teamwork and workflow at hand. Documentation of interactions is the storage of e-mails, chats and other records of online communication. While working in the cloud, every action and every bit of communication is stored and can help make everybody’s contribution visible.
The evidence indicates that the level of trust has less of an impact on the effectiveness of the team when team members have access to a record of their interactions. Organizations which do not facilitate this kind of tracking and recording of communications run the risk of having trust issues within virtual teams negatively affecting performance.

Takeaways for practice

In sum, when team members operate in an electronically mediated context, team trust has an even stronger relevance to their overall performance. With the challenge of “going virtual” comes the opportunity to improve team effectiveness by documenting interactions.

The following is a step-by-step guide to help teams build trust and sustain that trust over time:

  • Getting to know you → when forming new teams, encourage social activities in person to establish emotional ties between people. Create opportunities for team members to meet up every now and then to build relationships. Then, enable them to spend the first 2 minutes of an online call talking about life – not just work.
  • How do I trust you? → Clark et al. (2010) suggest that people trust each other based on three factors: competence, integrity and benevolence. Below are simple actions that facilitate those three:
    • trust on competence: give evidence of each member’s skills and expertise in relation to a role – during meetings let individuals ‘show and tell’, that is, explain the outcome of their work, and how they executed a task.
    • trust on integrity: team members keep promises, respect deadlines, and comply with norms of behavior on which the team had agreed. By documenting interactions, team members can easily recall what has been done, when, and by whom – at any time!
    • trust on benevolence: a teammate is perceived as benevolent when they go the extra mile by committing to put more effort in than is formally needed – just help each other!
  • Who knows what? → To avoid role ambiguity or conflict, set up dashboards that clearly report ownership of tasks. Use agendas, minutes of meetings, video and/or audio recordings of important discussions and events.
  • Trust maintenanceFrequent interactions and exchanges of information between leaders and team members are crucial. Those with the responsibility to lead are perceived as being transparent and trustworthy within the team when they engage in frequent and open interactions with team members. Anytime, anywhere, leaders can use dashboards and remote working tools to frequently communicate and exchange information with others.

Is something missing?

There are many other elements that might affect the relationship between team trust and the effectiveness of the team. For the purpose of this review, we can only report the impact of virtuality and documentation of interactions on a relationship between team trust and team effectiveness. The research shows that these two factors can mutually influence each other.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this summary. We found that it has a moderately high (80%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1151 – 1177.

Clark, W. R., Clark, L. A., & Crossley, K. (2010). Developing multidimensional trust without touch in virtual teams. Marketing Management Journal, 20(1), 177-193.

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  3. With virtual teams being more and more common, nurturing trust among staff members will become a top priority for businesses.

  4. Diana

    Great article, thanks!!

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