Trust Drives Virtual Team Performance

Face time. Virtual teams benefit from opportunities to meet colleagues in person.
Face time. Virtual teams benefit from opportunities to meet colleagues in person.

In today’s globalized workplace a major challenge is how to get the most out of teams that are scattered across multiple countries.

Research being carried out by the MIT SCALE (Supply Chain and Logistics Excellence) Network suggests that the single most important teamwork attribute affecting the performance of a virtual team is the level of trust between individuals.

The work is described in a recent column by Dr. Shardul Phadnis, Postdoctoral Associate, MIT CTL, and Dr. Chris Caplice, Executive Director, MIT CTL, in the journal Supply Chain Management Review.

Twenty student teams from four SCALE centers in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America took part in a competition called the 2013 SCALE Challenge. In the game, a fictional orange juice supply chain is managed by four functions along with the CEO. The goal is to maximize the ROI, and the team with highest return wins.

Twelve rounds of the Challenge were played between September 2012 and January 2013. For the first six rounds the team members – who had not met prior to the start of the game – performed as global virtual teams using remote communications channels such as Skype and email. The last six rounds were played face-to-face during a gathering in Cambridge, MA, in the United States.

Over the entire game, nine teamwork attributes were evaluated by the SCALE researchers. Information on the communications methods used as well as participants’ level of engagement and demographic profiles was also collected.

The analysis indicates that trust is critical to team performance. The attribute “intra-team trust” was measured in terms of the degree of trust in other team members, the extent to which colleagues can be relied upon to keep their word, and the need to check other team members’ work.

In addition, the attributes “team efficacy” (a person’s belief that his/her team is capable of accomplishing its goals), “psychological safety” (an individual’s feeling that she/he is treated by colleagues as a valued team member), and “team composition” (the personal belief that a team is composed of competent individuals), might influence team performance.

Interestingly, all nine attributes increased sharply over the highest levels experienced by virtual teams after the students met their teammates and made decisions about future rounds of the game in person.

This finding is in tune with the observations of Mark Mortensen, Assistant Professor in Behavioral Policy Science at the MIT Sloan School, in a recent blog post about the performance of virtual teams.

While companies can use technology to manage these groups, they should make sure that “onsite interaction – meetings where virtual teams and home-based teams interact in person – are part of the overall team management,” says Mortensen.

Sharing “direct” knowledge such as information on the roles, cultures, work processes, and relationships that exist in other centers, helps to build trust and this in turn makes virtual communications more effective, he explains.

In other words, there is no substitute for personal contact in a virtual environment where people can’t gather around a water cooler to get to know each other and develop trusting relationships.

The SCALE Network research on virtual team performance is ongoing. For more information on the work contact Dr. Shardul Phadnis at


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