Last updated on | Agile General Knowledge

How to build trust with remote teams

by Lisette Sutherland

Trust with remote teams

I’m completely obsessed with the idea of being able to work from anywhere. I personally most value the freedom that remote working offers, but I also had an experience where I got to see, first hand, what could happen when you get great people working together to solve a problem.

About 10 years ago, I helped to build an online project management tool that was way ahead of its time. More interesting than the product itself was why it was being built… which was because the CEO didn’t want to die. This tool was being built so that longevity scientists could collaborate together to solve the problem of aging.

And the whole team was, for their own reason, inspired to help him – and we all worked remotely. And while we didn’t solve aging (yet) – we do, in fact, so some really great things together.

What I learned from this experience was that the best people needed to solve a problem are often not all in the same place – and if we take away the issue of being geographically dispersed, it gets us one-step closer to being able to doing great things together.

For the last 2 years, I’ve been interviewing people and companies working remotely. There’s one thing that comes up in every single interview. TRUST! How do we know people are working?

First, there needs to be a shift in mindset from work being somewhere we go to being something we do! This forces us from being time-oriented at work (working 9 to 5, for example) to being RESULTS oriented. And there seems to be a debate over whether Agile and distributed can co-exist. But it seems to me that Agile shows us how remote working should be done: Adaptive planning, people over process, continuous improvement, etc. are all cornerstones to making effective remote teams work. And just like Agile, working remotely is a mindset with many different paths to success.

To enhance our virtual collaborations, many teams try to simulate the office. Spotify uses Hangouts for pair programming, Global Logic places a web cam in each office so teams can see each other, Happy Melly is experimenting with telepresence, Agile Bill Krebs hosts seminars and attends university classes in virtual worlds. There are many simple ways to simulate the office. Experiment with what works for your team.

And of course, there’s more to working remotely than just having the right tools in place. Good virtual team managers must foster effective communication and group cohesion. And again, Agile shows us how it’s done with continuous improvement and feedback.

John Stepper has introduced the concept of “working out loud”: narrating our work and making it observable to others. Some use a group chat system, some use blogs, some use video conferencing… it all depends on what will work for your team.

NASA’s SSERVI team spends significant time doing one-on-one training with their staff so that everyone understands how to use the tools.

However your team decides they want to work together, capture and review that regularly in a team agreement, a living document that sets expectations and outlines the expectations for how a remote team will work together. But don’t rely on written protocols for communication. When a conversation gets emotional, talk things out.

One thing that most people miss on virtual teams is the time spent goofing off with each other. And this is, indeed, important if we want to build or enhance our relationships. Hanging out together. Having virtual lunches. Sharing experiences. With remote teams, we have to be deliberate about creating “unstructured time”.

Trust on virtual teams happens when we are reliable, consistent, and transparent. And we can build those values into our every day interactions. What will you do to build trust on your team today?

This blog post was written by Lisette Sutherland. If you liked this blog post stay tuned because Lisette and Luis are preparing some really cool material around Distributed Agile Retrospectives. If you want to know more check it here.

Lisette serves on the Board of Directors for Happy Melly and is the Director at, a company that helps teams work together from anywhere. With over 10 years experience with web-based collaboration tools and online community management, her goal is to get the best people working together regardless of location. To know more about Lisette click here.


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Lisette Sutherland

About Lisette Sutherland


Share your point of view

  1. If people working in IT cannot use technology to work remotely, then who can.

    However, the problem always seems to be that until Managers learn to trust the people on their team, nothing will change.

  2. Fantastic. I can’t wait to hear and learn more on this subject.

    I am currently working as an Agile Coach for 5 teams that are located in 2 separate states, and have to deal with this on a daily basis.

  3. Que te posso dizer acerca do teu trabalho? Nada, a não ser que estou muito, muito orgulhosa e que te desejo todo o sucesso do mundo. Um grande beijo.

  4. Couldn’t agree more Luis and Lisette. Great article! As you know, at Retrium (, we make a tool to help distributed teams run effective retrospectives. Good retrospectives can lead to an increase in trust, but strangely enough it’s a catch 22. You also need trust to run good retrospectives.

  5. The biggest if not the only problem with remote teams that I have been experiencing is the time zone difference. The cameras and other strategies are not going to work here to bring the teams together, because when one part of the team is working the other is asleep. In such case, the teams need to be autonomous and be able to act independently. For the teams located in the same time zone, I agree … I may even say that people might be more productive working remotely as they are removed from all interruptions that come with the office environment.