How to Build Trust in a Distributed Engineering Team

5 min read
April 13, 2023

We’ve entered an era in which distributed tech teams are prevalent in software development, driving tangible benefits for businesses: higher productivity, increased retention, access to new talent markets, and cost efficiencies of global hiring.

But have you ever wondered what the happiest, most productive, and well-adjusted teams have in common? It’s trust. We’re not talking about the kind of trust where you lend someone a pen and hope to see it back. The trust we discuss today runs deep, stemming from psychological safety, mutual respect, and honest communication that makes the team… a team. Even if they don’t sit in the same room.

“Trust is the essential quality in any team relationship. Team members will not work interdependently with anyone they do not trust. And without interdependence, there can be no effective division of the task, no leverage of the gifts and skills of individual team members, and, therefore, no synergy. No trust, no relationship, no team.”

― Pat MacMillan, The Performance Factor: Unlocking the Secrets of Teamwork

So, how can you build a culture of trust within your remote engineering team? Why should you even care? Let’s try to find some answers.

Why is trust important in a team?

Trust improves engagement and productivity

Disengaged employees cost companies up to 34% of their annual salary, impacting the US economy with $450-$550 billion in lost productivity per year. Neuroscientists discovered that having a higher purpose can stimulate our brains to release oxytocin—one of the “happy hormones” —causing a surge of positive emotion. People in high-trust companies showed 76% more engagement, 50% more productivity, and 41% more sense of accomplishment than their peers in less enabling workplaces. Generally, companies with higher trust levels outperform their low-trust competitors by 186%.

Trust improves organizational alignment

Mutual trust is worth its weight in gold for achieving business success. It makes it much easier for employers and teams to synchronize and work in harmony without holding back information and ideas. A shared understanding of what is going on creates a sense of purpose among team members and provides them with a clear line of sight so they can stay focused and aligned on the end goal.

Trust drives ethical decision-making

Employees and executives are more likely to make ethical decisions in a workplace built on trust because everyone is aware that unethical actions will ruin the carefully created and maintained team culture. When trust is the gold standard, leaders feel more confident to delegate their teams more decision-making freedom, and teams feel more empowered and motivated to bring up creative ideas and solutions.

Trust boosts team morale

The same neuroscientific experiments revealed that employees feel 106% more energetic, 74% less stressed, and generally happier when their teams are built on trust. A culture of trust is necessary to combat digital presenteeism (often driven by proximity bias) and absenteeism caused by stress and burnout, the bane of well-being.

“If a person does not trust another, they will not be vulnerable and transparent, and the possibility of misunderstanding and misinterpretation increases. Low trust situations weaken the connection between what we feel and what we say. Other team members pick up on this lack of trust on their intuitive radar screens, raise their defensive shields, and respond in kind. Trust and communication spiral down together.”

― Pat MacMillan, The Performance Factor: Unlocking the Secrets of Teamwork

Remember oxytocin? Not only does its level increase when we feel trusted—it is also associated with empathy and social attachment that make us want to treat people fairly. And if we do something good for others, we reciprocate these emotions. So trust breeds trust—with loyalty and more productive work constructs to follow.

Four tips for building trust within your distributed team

To work together effectively and to establish competence trust (a strong belief in others’ ability to deliver high-quality work) and interpersonal trust (confidence in others’ intentions), we need clear signals about each other’s actions, motivations, and reliability. The isolation of remote work makes it much more difficult to read and interpret these cues correctly (despite those working from home usually being 47% more productive). 

Nevertheless, leaders can try many ways to build trust in a distributed team.

Encourage transparent and open communication

Being transparent and truthful is key to positive communication and strong working relationships. However, it is essential to find a balance between staying connected and falling into the micromanagement trap. Incorporating touch into daily routines helps establish a natural and transparent dialogue. 

A great way to foster cross-team communication is through regular virtual stand-ups. These meetings should have a clear agenda and time limit, where team members can give updates on their progress, wins, and roadblocks. Periodic 1:1s are a great jumping-off point for establishing more personal relationships and sharing updates and feedback specific to the individual or their team.

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Give your teams more autonomy

One of the most challenging components of remote work is determining whether or not your employees are actually working. Successful remote companies increasingly shift their attention to results, empowering their teams to make decisions and solve problems autonomously as much as possible. Of course, hold them accountable for these opportunities. However, by putting your engineers’ tasks, time, and technique in their hands, you’ll inspire them to trust you in return, making you a more effective engineering manager. Trust, after all, is a two-way street!

Promote authenticity

Encouraging dependability in your team starts with you as the leader. If you expect your reports to be reliable and trustworthy, you must model that behavior yourself. Start with self-awareness: leaders become more authentic when they know who they are—their values, strengths, and bias—and how others perceive them. Emotionally connected leaders instill more trust and are more likely to be supported by their teams.

Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer revealed that only 64% of workers trust their CEOs, so executives need to be approachable and talk about the company’s ups and downs, especially during crises. When all important discussions are held publicly, nobody feels left out of the conversation and has an equal opportunity to contribute to decisions.

“To build an honest and constructive culture that encourages ideas, fulfillment, and development, we need to bring our whole selves to work without wearing masks or shields. This authenticity allows us to build genuine connections with others, generate more ideas, and step outside our comfort zones by seeking and accepting feedback. Embracing our authentic selves also helps us understand in a meaningful way who we are and how we can contribute to Beetroot’s values and develop stronger emotional intelligence.”

— Olha Levchenko, People Partner (internal) at Beetroot

Nurture recognition and feedback

Neuroscience research suggests that recognition best impacts trust when provided shortly after completing a goal, when it comes from peers, and is tangible, unexpected, personalized, and shared openly. Public acknowledgment uses group dynamics to celebrate success, inspire others to strive for excellence, and allow top performers to share their expertise.

Be extra attentive to what people say, and immediately address any perceptions of unfair treatment. Stay consistent with how you treat your teams and expectations for each employee. Give them feedback on their performance and use surveys to understand what your teams think of the company culture, their ideas for improvement, and their opinions.

“At Beetroot, we use personal development sessions (PDFs) instead of traditional performance reviews. Unlike reviews that focus solely on performance, these sessions are designed to drive professional success, comfortable collaboration, and leveraging one’s skills and expertise to enhance team dynamics. The ultimate goal of PDFs is to help people unlock their full potential and foster a strong synergy between HR, consultants, and project managers for exceptional team outcomes.”

— Tetiana Boichenko, Chief People Officer at Beetroot

To sum up, it’s important to remember that building trust within a distributed team is an ongoing process that requires consistent effort and attention. Trust can emerge at any stage of the team formation process—from “love at first interview” to later collaboration. Trust requires ongoing communication, transparency, and a commitment to shared goals and values. By focusing on these key elements, you can build strong, high-performing teams regardless of their physical location.

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