The late leadership consultant Warren Bennis once said, “Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.” Not only does trust help organizational teams work together, it often paves the way for the type of collaboration that ultimately enables market-capturing innovations.

The question is, as more businesses start to embrace virtual work environments, is it possible to build that trust between team members at a distance? According to their Leesman Index article titled, “Does it work to work apart?”  Lena Lid and Tomas Lid Falkman tell us trust without working shoulder to shoulder is absolutely achievable. The biggest difference is in the type of trust team members foster with one another.

“In a team that works within the same office and meets in real life, trust is created based on relationships; how we perceive people and whether we like one another. In a team that collaborates virtually, trust is created based on actions. Trust emerges based on how the team members deliver. If I experience that my team mate, who I might never have met, contributes wisely in meetings, produces smart pieces of work and delivers on promises in a timely manner, I start to trust this person. This action-based trust can actually be seen as truer, or more relevant for work, than a relation-based trust.”

Keeping social in perspective

While this action-based trust is more relevant and powerful in the workplace, it doesn’t eliminate the value in encouraging team members to develop a social bond. After all, a social space also helps ensure that team members avoid feeling disconnected or abandoned. Fortunately, adding social aspects to a virtual work environment is easy – even if it requires a little planning.

For instance, the authors of the Leesman article suggest encouraging or even leading social discussions at the beginning of any virtual team session, such as starting every meeting by sharing or discussing weekend plans, sporting events, or the weather outside each participant’s window. Also, during session breaks they recommend keeping the virtual connection running “so that team members can start chit-chatting as they return to their computers, replicating a real life scenario. Taking the time to get to know each other and create a social atmosphere is worthwhile when working together.”

Where organizations often fail is when they focus solely on these social interactions as the source of all innovative thought. As Scott Stratten and Allison Kramer discuss in a recent UnPodcast episode titled The Coffee is Cold, it is a mistake to use the potential highlight of “the water cooler moment” as a standard for facilitating innovation because most of the time it is totally unproductive. “Collaboration does not mean I am sitting three feet from you…I understand face-to-face and getting to know one another because it creates trust, but that does not mean Monday through Friday. The more we can control our environment, the more productive we are.”

And, for a growing number of professionals, controlling the environment means operating virtually, working when and where it works best for them.

Empowering the troops

Of course, for some, a shift from a traditional office environment to the concept of working apart incites anxiety about entering uncharted territory. But when organizations are able to create a sense of normality it can quickly diminish fears.

It is crucial to see working apart from the worker’s perspective, writes Lid Falkman, “Many of the people who tried web conference meetings early in the tech evolution still carry the misconception that video and web meetings simply do not work. Before we relied on video conferencing with expensive and complicated equipment. Now that the technology is simpler, cheaper and more intuitive, we all have a potential meeting in our pockets, in the form of our smart phones, laptops or tablets.”

The right tools can ease a lot of the fear. For example, when you can start with a chat in Skype for Business and escalate it to a voice or even video call with the click of a button, it makes the collaboration process less intimidating. Once you overcome the initial preconceptions about video, starting a video conference in a huddle or meeting room becomes far less overwhelming.

It helps significantly when solutions seamlessly integrate with the programs they use daily. For instance, scheduling a video conference in Outlook the same way they would schedule an in-person meeting and leveraging services like RealConnect for Office 365 and Skype for Business to make adding disparate and legacy video devices to collaboration sessions just as simple.

Making it work

While the authors of the Leesman article summarize that “working in distributed, virtual teams can work,” the new reality is that organizations need to find ways to make it work considering that 62% of the global workforce are expecting to be able to work from anywhere.

Smart organizations will focus on the right kinds of collaboration at a distance and provide the technology that makes it just as intuitive as meeting at the watercooler.