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Thoughts on Trust in Remote Teams

Working remotely adds an entirely new kind of challenge to already complicated workplace relationships. Human relationships hinge in part on trust and trust can be difficult to establish digitally. How much you can you really learn about someone you’ve never met? Can you rely on someone you’ve only seen once?

Working in a remote team forces you to take a leap of faith beyond a traditional office relationship. At the end of the day there are a shadowy cabal of people you must rely on to help build a product, sign your checks and keep you employed.

To overcome this gap at Zapier we try a few different things to build trust systems into digital relationships. First, we have fun. Fun builds feelings of mutual camaraderie in a team. Our Slack channel and Async - our internal communication tool - all lean towards laid back. You can drop a funny GIF into chat, you can make jokes to blow off steam and you’re encouraged to just communicate with your coworkers.

We default to transparency, meaning that our communication channels are open - visible as often as possible to everyone. No one is left out of the loop, no one is punished for not being “there” at the right time in asynchronous communication. When your team spans so many timezones you simply can’t afford to place emphasis on “when.”

These kind of things bridge the gap in a relationship that’s almost purely digital. They’re stop gaps that enable us to feel connected with people who may even be on the other side of the world. The best way that Zapier helps solidify these relationships are during our retreats.

Retreats: A Camp for Adults

Instead of dividing everyone into sterile and physically separate hotel rooms the Zapier team lives together under one roof for upwards of a week. We cook together, clean together and hack together. From top to bottom each person is sharing in the responsibility of the companies’ success.

Everyone is suddenly on every team. Wild ideas become concrete projects in an afternoon. It’s fantastic to see a company bloom so vividly together. When you spend so much time apart the energy when everyone comes together is palpable. It feels, in some ways, like a camp for adults. Work becomes play - enjoyable, stimulating and done as much for the fun of it as anything else.

Its arguable that Zapier is at a sweet spot in size - big enough to build a community but small enough to maintain a culture and that’s why these retreats work. But I believe that these retreats can be scaled, and maintain the magic for even larger teams. A larger team may even need it more as the web of trust becomes stretched by each new member. When you rely on each other directly you strengthen digital relationships into tangible relationships that can be maintained even in the absence of regular face to face time.

Trust is the Most Valuable Currency

Building structures that encourage and grow trust networks is a critical part of remote working. It starts at hiring, where you select for candidates you can rely on. It’s grown by communication that’s friendly and transparent. Maintaining those relationships must be an active goal that is sometimes best serviced by just simply being together.

Working remotely is a way to build teams that aren't restricted by the arbitrary limitations of geography, teams that are able to offer a more balanced work-life experience. It isn't however without challenges. But they are challenges that should be met face on. To deny that is to fail to rise to the occasion in a time where fully remote operations are just taking off. I firmly believe the future of knowledge workers is remote and that it is a social responsibility to excel at building the structure that will support future teams. Finding ways to strengthen trust within a team is a huge part of that and one that we're only just beginning to understand.