Building Trust in Virtual Environments

Recognizing the unique interpersonal dynamics within virtual spaces, we created guidance for building trust in remote environments. Through these insights and strategies, leaders can design virtual meetings and spaces to foster the trust and vulnerability needed for DEI work.

Trust is a key ingredient for promoting workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion across all aspects of organizational life. Trust helps build healthy and dynamic relationships with co-workers and creates conditions where colleagues collaborate effectively in teams. Strong trust facilitates an environment that encourages employees to be authentic and vulnerable.

Effective communication makes trust possible and is critical for organizational effectiveness, developing psychologically safe work environments and promoting cultures that support diversity, as well as equitable and inclusive programs, policies, and practices.

When employees work in the same physical space, communication is often taken for granted, and intent and meaning can be conveyed implicitly through nonverbal cues. In remote work, when employees work from a home office, many conventional and familiar ways of communicating are simply not possible. Non-verbal cues are often not easily detected, thus more opportunities exist for misunderstandings and disconnection.

The success of DEI work depends largely upon our ability to communicate across distances, between differences in roles and identity, and into our unique world views, life filters, and professional perspectives. Effective communication creates the conditions where trust can take root and blossom into new forms of authentic relationships, powerful and sustained collaboration, and a deeper embrace of diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces.

Trust is generally built in the workplace across three key dimensions:

  1. Integrity: Trust that team members will perform reliably and predictably, per group norms.

  2. Ability: Trust that team members are fully competent to perform their tasks.

  3. Kindness: Trust that team members genuinely care about each other’s well-being.

This literature review seeks to solidify an understanding of how trust is built in remote work environments through communication – ultimately ensuring that any internal DEI work that is introduced and supported can be more successful at the most fundamental level.

Remote Communications Strategies

In January 2020, the Remote DEI Collective conducted a survey of employees across the Collective’s seven participating remote and semi-remote organizations. The purpose of the survey was to capture information to better understand and support diversity, equity, and inclusion in remote environments. Respondents were specifically asked, “Please share and describe strategies your organization or team has used to encourage trust-building among team members to help them share their feelings, be candid, or be vulnerable.” These strategies are shared below and are organized by the two types of trust identified by the literature review cognitive (integrity/ability) or affective (benevolence), and then sorted by key strategy areas.

Strategies for Building Trust Through Integrity & Ability

STRATEGY 1: Foster a learning environment

Put together an intentional learning arc for each team member

Learning assignments, fostering accountability

Establish 'everything is a prototype' attitude

Anonymous surveys

Quarterly team pulse-checks

Encouraging individuals to resolve issues

Creating big picture context with weekly articles/emails from leadership

STRATEGY 2: Create a feedback/support culture

Intentional scheduling of information and feedback sessions

Buddy systems

Connecting time within each meeting or check-in

Weekly one-on-one meetings

Encourage open feedback

Strategies for Building Trust Through Kindness

STRATEGY 1: Make time for time together

Retreats for team building and relationship building

In-person and virtual off-sites, often with expert facilitation

One-on-one virtual coffees

Biweekly personal/professional sharing/updates in team meetings

"Pop-up" meetings

Weekly team meetings

Team "hangouts"

Integrative Community of Practice time

STRATEGY 2: Create resources to bring out your team's "whole selves"

Racial autobiographies

User manuals; profiles for each team member about their preferences, likes, dislikes, communication styles, and more

Sharing of personality/disposition assessments

STRATEGY 3: Get to know your team on many levels

Listening tours

Structured, personal sharing

Team meeting sharing


STRATEGY 4: Create space for dialogue around DEI topics

Cross-racial and racial affinity groups

Book clubs

Culture surveys

'Equity pauses' to reflect on how white supremacy (or other inequities) may have been present in meetings

Debriefs and problems of practice

STRATEGY 5: Celebrate/express gratitude

Intentional space (group, one-on-one) to share triumphs and struggles within and outside of work

Intentional space for gratitude

Birthday (e.g., birthday deck) and life events

"We started exploring how to make non-verbal communication explicit in remote communication. As we dug into this topic, we realized that the organization needs to establish a culture of trust to engage in uncomfortable conversations that is needed to advance DEI."

– Tripti Thapa, Deans for Impact

*Y.L., Greenberg, R.H., & Greenberg, S.P.(2007) Creating & Sustaining Trust on Virtual Teams, Business Horizons