Building trust while working remotely

Sara Baker

Many teams around the world are making a quick transition to remote work right now. With a team of 17 people working from 12 countries, we’ve been honing what works – and what doesn’t – for nine years of being a virtual workplace. At the core of feeling good as individuals and as a team, and at the core of doing good work, is trust. Below are a few things that can go a long way towards doing just that in a remote environment.

If you need support selecting tools that fit your new–or old–remote working needs, you can always get in touch with us for pro bono support through our light touch support program.

Key ingredients for trust-filled remote teams

1. Dedicated space for each other as humans

When you’re connected to your colleagues only through a device, it’s critical to dedicate time to building and maintaining relationships. We do this by making space to share weekend highlights in Monday team emails, check in on personal things and exchange everything from recipes to music recs. We’ve also found that celebrating wins, however small, and commiserating over bummers in work and personal life help us affirm each other’s humanity and keep us real. 

What you can do: If you use messaging platforms like Mattermost or Slack, consider creating a channel specifically for topics your team enjoys or for sharing pictures from each others’ offline lives. You can also set up rituals, like weekly or monthly emails specifically to share highlights from outside the office.

2. Agreements about how, when and where to communicate

But it’s not just about knowing about life outside of work. Strong remote teams proactively build trust and openness. With every interaction mediated by a device and the ability to work from any location, trust becomes paramount. Making room for people to bring their whole selves to work helps, but so do clear communication processes, flexibility and accountability. Our work culture stems from our shared values, which encourage us to give each other the benefit of the doubt as we navigate the complexities of remote communication.   

We have guidelines on what should be communicated via email and what is better suited for messaging platforms like Mattermost and Slack. It’s easy to get bogged down in messages and document comments when sometimes a quick call is all you need to sort out an issue. We like video calls because communication is much clearer when you can see each other. And when we’re messaging we use lots of emojis and GIFs to take the place of body language. A well-timed 💖 or 🤗 or a smartly used 💪 or 🙌 can go a long way. We also have agreements on turn-around times for communications and don’t expect people to respond outside of working hours.

What you can do: Create guidelines for what to share on messaging platforms versus what is better suited in a call or email. Include an agreement about using video calls when possible.

3. Understanding that being flexible takes work

Flexibility is a definite highlight to working remotely, but it also requires that teams and team members be empathetic and quick to adapt. Making this explicit helps ensure that people don’t feel punished for working outside of a standard office. From unexpected power outages and sick kids to ringing doorbells and a neighbor’s never-ending construction, we understand that life happens. Tech fails too. Every now and then, we have to move a call from platform to platform until everyone can hear. That’s fine! Knowing we’re more productive because we work remotely enables us to make time for hiccups. We move calls around in our calendars so we don’t have to go back and forth about when to meet or reschedule.

What you can do: If you’re in a position of power in your organisation, model empathy and understanding when remote work inevitably leads to hiccups. Be honest about your own unexpected disruptions and understanding when others face them, too.   

4. Showing up

Just because your office is a remote one, doesn’t mean it must be a silent one. Making work visible goes a long way toward building trust. For us that means that Mattermost is our office. We show up; we interact. We have core working hours for each timezone, so we know when to expect folks to be online. We can all see each other’s calendars, and we have a standing-updates channel where we list what we’re working on each day. We do synchronous and asynchronous communication based on project, team and individual needs. We schedule tasks for ourselves and each other and check them off as we do them. All of this visibility helps us hold each other accountable.

What you can do: Create channels to participate in, and use them! Whether it’s Mattermost (or Slack), emails, calendars or project management platforms, remember that your office does still exist, even if it’s a digital one.

Maintaining your personal well-being

On an individual level, transitioning to remote work can be tough, especially if you can’t go out to a co-working space or coffee shop. Working from home often creates a grey zone, where work and personal life can unexpectedly creep into each other’s spaces. Setting boundaries between home and work enables us to turn work off at the end of the day. If you have room for a dedicated workspace (an office, a desk in a corner), that’s ideal. If not, at least avoid working from your bed and maybe change out of your pajamas. Some folks need a ritual to mark the beginning and end of work, something to substitute for a commute like a walk or a phone call to a family member. We also turn off notifications after hours.

It’s easy to feel lonely when you work from home. We solve that by scheduling coffee time, where people have coffee and a chat in a video call or do their own work while a call is open, allowing them to share random thoughts and laughs with each other. Sometimes we do water cooler calls, where folks who want to talk about what’s happening in the world can commiserate and re-focus. We have Mattermost channels that don’t relate to work: music, brainfood, news, etc. These helps us feel connected. We also try to listen to our bodies and remind each other to rest or make tea as needed.

Sitting by yourself for hours can also lead to a spiral of negative thoughts, especially if the news is bleak, you got feedback you didn’t like or you’re just having a difficult time. To get out of our heads, we do things like go for a quick walk (or even do a walking call!), spend a few minutes jumping on a mini trampoline while listening to Beyoncé or take proper lunch breaks without devices.

Some of the tools we use

Whether you’ve been working remotely for a while or are jumping in for the first time, there are ample tools out there to keep you organised and connected. While comparing their functionalities is important, we also choose ours based on the kind of security they offer and how that matches with both our needs and our values.

For example, we switched over from Slack to Mattermost in recent years, wanting to have greater control over where our communications were being stored. We’ve used encrypted emails (and email clients that support them, like Thunderbird) for a while, too. 

When we conduct calls, we balance our varying needs (bandwidth, device/browser compatibility, need for encryption, etc.) to choose the best platform. For small-to-medium sized calls, Jitsi is a great open source, encrypted option. We sometimes use Whereby for those, too. For larger calls, we use platforms like UberConference or Zoom (though it’s worth reading up on Zoom’s privacy policy and seeing how it fits with your organisation’s needs). And we’ve found that Skype tends to work better for people with lower bandwidth. 

For note-taking and document creating, we also make a call depending on context. There are collaborative, open source pads like RiseUp and Vedetas that are great for meetings like community calls. Platforms like FunRetro are useful for brainstorming exercises and workshops. 

Not sure what would work best for you? Reach out and get pro bono support!

Further reading

Many others who work remotely have shared their tips and recommendations. Whether you need to finish a project, strengthen a team, teach a class or lead a workshop, you’ll find information to help.

Let us know what you’ve learned about remote work via Twitter @EngnRoom or by sending us a note at If you have questions about how to make the tech of working remotely work for you, reach out to us for pro bono support.

Photo credit: Andrew Neel on Unsplash


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