Literature Review: Building Trust with Remote Communication

"While remote work can often seem like a new and relatively unchartered frontier, we’re benefitting from the pioneers who paved the way and shared their experiences transitioning their work practices into the virtual world. When we dig into the wisdom, successes – and failures – of others in the space, we can learn, grow, and tailor solutions that best fit our teams."

– Samantha Artukovich, TLA

What are the key components of trust?

  • First, we discuss the three components of trust: ability, integrity, and benevolence. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • People trust individuals who perform reliably and competently (cognitive trust), and display concern for the well-being of others (affective trust). (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Trust traditionally arises in two ways. One is based on rational or calculative assessments and is called cognitive trust. It is the result of an evaluation of evidence of performance reliability and competence. Cognitive trust has been modeled as a function of the other person's integrity and ability. The second way trust arises is based on emotional ties and is called affective trust. It is the result of the social bonds developed in a reciprocal relationship in which there is genuine care and concern for the welfare of the other person. This type of trust is based on assessments of benevolence. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • The key to good communications is not quantity but quality. (Ferrazzi, 2012)

Why is remote communication challenging?

  • Different locations can create disparities in working contexts and situations that can lead to disruptions, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • When teammates are dispersed, it is more difficult to create the bonds of cohesion that can lead to trust based on assessments of benevolence. There are no conversations at the watercooler, over coffee, or during lunch that help teams form a collective identity and group norms. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Additionally, it can be hard for members to see themselves as belonging, as the team is only visible electronically. Even if video conferencing is used, the development of relationships is difficult because the social dimensions of working together virtually are not enacted in the same manner as when co-located. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Technology-enabled communication does not convey the same richness of emotion and reaction that face-to-face communication enables; managers and team members do not have many visual cues that signal behavior and attitude. This means that communication in virtual teams must be more explicit because members cannot see eyes rolling, nods of assent, or heads shaking in disagreement. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • In face-to-face communication, non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and physical gestures play a crucial part in communicating emotion, and help manage the relationship between messages and meaning, which contributes to making interactions feel personal and human. In the field of linguistics, these nonverbal cues are known as paralanguage, which can occupy 60-90% of human communication. Paralanguage is how something is said rather than what is said, and can include tone of voice, facial expression, hand gestures, body language and eye movements. Understanding how to leverage paralanguage, therefore, is important to enable better and more personal customer communication.(Murphy, 2017)

  • The paradox in dispersed teamwork is that trust is more critical for effective functioning — but also more difficult to build — than in more traditional teams. Trust between teammates in the same workspace is influenced to a large extent by familiarity and liking; however, in dispersed teams, people must signal their trustworthiness by how they work with others on a task. (Hill & Bartol, 2018)

How do you build affective trust (benevolence)?

  • Humans are intensely social beings. They need to feel connected. Personal sharing is one of the easiest and most overlooked ways to create that connection, especially when staff are remote. (Ferrazzi, 2014)

  • We need to get people to let their guard down, to be more vulnerable and thus open to connection to their virtual tribe, which translates into “because I like you, I want to help you.” That starts true synergy. “I’m willing to make small compromises for you.” Not for some greater good, for you. And with greater openness to each other’s point of view we can bounce ideas off each other candidly and get some real innovation going. (Ferrazzi, 2014)

  • Creating social bonds early in the project lays the foundation for benevolence (affective trust), which is important in later stages of the project. This was exemplified by, and clearly the case for, a virtual team whose members discussed their hobbies by way of introduction and used emoticons throughout their commu-nications.(Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • One theory is that we tend to trust others who we perceive to be similar to us because we believe that those individuals will react to various situations in ways that we can understand (and even predict). (Ferrazzi, 2012)

  • As mentioned previously, Waltherand & Bunz(2005) examined communication in distributed teams. They found social communication, including simply saying hi at the beginning of an email, had a positive impact on trust. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • A personal/professional check in at the beginning of meetings makes people feel part of a team. It’s probably the easiest way to overcome the isolation that can creep in when people don’t work together physically. (Ferrazzi, 2014)

  • In instant messaging, emojis can heighten the receivers’ empathy for the sender, while increasing perceived trustworthiness and quality of the message. Emojis, therefore, can support us in the emotional and social “work” needed to build not just personal but also customer relationships, without being physically present. (Murphy 2017)

  • Managers can help encourage such personal connections by starting meetings with a “Take 5” for people to talk about what’s been happening in their lives, both professionally and personally. (Ferrazzi, 2012)

How do you build cognitive trust (ability, reliability)

  • Assessments of ability and integrity (cognitive trust) determine trust in early stages of a team's life. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • In a study of global distributed teams, the researchers found that teams lacking in trust tended to have unpredictable communication patterns, often with just one or two members accounting for the bulk of the communications.In contrast, on the high-trust teams in the study, communications were regular and predictable. (Ferrazzi, 2012)

  • It is important that team members be trained in how to efficiently and proficiently use group-employed communication and application-specific software. Lags in responses that are due to user incompetence may be misinterpreted as reflecting a lack of functional ability or commitment,something which could lead to quicker dissolution of swift trust than would otherwise be expected. It may also lead to slower development of cognitive trust and can destroy established trust at any time. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • During the organizing stage, trust is based on cognitive assessments. The two important determinants of team members' trust in other teammates are the assessment of others' ability to accomplish the project's goals (i.e., competence) and the perception of others' integrity in their interactions in the team. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Team leaders can encourage participation by directly asking non-participating members for their input. Team leaders should also acknowledge and commend the suggestions of individual members to the whole team, and encourage group members to acknowledge each other's contributions. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Openly acknowledging the value of each member's contributions to the organizing activities can reinforce the trust that developed during that stage. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

How is trust developed and sustained within teams?

  • To help develop trust on a virtual team, encourage everyone to respond promptly to requests from their teammates, take the time to provide substantive feedback, proactively suggest solutions to problems the team is facing, and maintain a positive and supportive tone in communications. (Hill & Bartol, 2018)

  • When first placed into teams, members initially look to external sources to develop the swift trust that is necessary for the team to immediately start working together. Since most members do not know each other, they rely on their own dispositional trust and on external cues rather than their assessments of the characteristics of the other team members. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Even when the task is well defined, which is certainly not always the case, teams still have to establish their norms of behavior, procedures for assigning tasks, interaction patterns and decision rules. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Participation of all team members in the organizing activities allows them to get to know one another. Managers can emphasize the importance of partic-ipation by including it as an evaluation criterion inmembers' performance reviews. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Team members should be helping and encouraging each other in the completion of the project. The pressure to meet performance standards and deadlines necessitates continued trust. Because the outcome depends on the group, social bonds and benevolence are the primary determinants of trust. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Assessments of benevolence (affective trust) and the continued assessment of integrity determine trust in the later stages. In virtual teams, communication patterns and the incentive/reward scheme influence how communication is interpreted and how the determinants of trust are assessed. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • In their article examining communication rules for distributed teams, Walther and Bunz(2005) identified imperatives such as: start imme-diately, communicate frequently, acknowledge others, be explicit about what you are thinking and doing, and observe deadlines. The authors found that merely setting a single rule requiring frequent communication led to a reduction in uncertainty and an increase in trust over no rules.

What role do managers/leaders play in building trust via remote communication?

  • The challenge for managers and team leaders is to encourage the development of trust initially and to nurture trust throughout the team's life. This challenge is particularly daunting because evidence indicates that trust is based on different assessments at different stages in the team's life, (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • Team leaders should also commemorate the achievement of interim deadlines. Managers and team leaders should find ways for the team to celebrate when deadlines are met. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • But managers shouldn’t simply enlist employees in a virtual environment and hope for the best. Instead, they need to be proactive, implementing the right mechanisms to ensure that trust will flourish (and not wither) within that environment. (Ferrazzi, 2012)

  • But that sharing of power doesn’t mean that a virtual team shouldn’t have a general leader. It should, but that leader should have more of a “monitor and mentor” approach to managing, instead of the traditional “command and control” mindset. (Ferrazzi 2012)

  • Team leaders should also encourage non-task-related communication (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • But that sharing of power doesn’t mean that a virtual team shouldn’t have a general leader. It should, but that leader should have more of a “monitor and mentor” approach to managing, instead of the traditional “command and control” mindset. (Ferrazzi, 2012)

  • Team leaders can encourage participation by directly asking non-participating members for their input. Team leaders should also acknowledge and commend the suggestions of individual members to the whole team, and encourage group members to acknowledge each other's contributions. (Greenberg, Greenberg & Antonucci, 2007)

  • In virtual meetings, the video often is triggered by who is speaking or people put their phones on mute. That means you may not pick up on someone who is yawning or looks upset as you would in a face-to-face gathering. A manager should pause periodically and poll everyone for input to help gauge the mood. (Bruzzese, 2014)

  • But that sharing of power doesn’t mean that a virtual team shouldn’t have a general leader. It should, but that leader should have more of a “monitor and mentor” approach to managing, instead of the traditional “command and control” mindset. (Ferrazzi, 2012)

  • Since it’s hard to pick up on emotional cues via video, managers should lead the way by expressing their emotions verbally and encourage others to do the same. Morgan suggests saying something like, “I’m excited about everything we’re accomplishing!” or “I’m concerned that you don’t seem confident in the Q3 numbers. How are you really feeling about them?” (Bruzzese, 2014)


Bruzzese, A. (2014), How Managers Can Enhance Nonverbal Cues for Virtual Teams, (blog)

Ferrazzi, K. (2012), How to Build Trust in a Virtual Workplace, Harvard Business Review

Ferrazzi, K. (2014), How Virtual Teams Can Create Human Connections Despite Distance, Harvard Business Review

Murphy, J. (2017), Make Online Messaging Personal by Embracing the Nonverbal, Inside Intercom

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

Hill, N.S. & Bartol, K.M. (2018), Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams, MIT Sloan Management Review

Achruch Consulting (2017), 6 Tips for Improving Tone in Virtual Communications, (blog)