The Importance of Trust in Remote Teams


Fred Perrotta

At our first big retreat in Montreal, we talked a lot about what working at Tortuga is like and who would be a good fit at the company.

One word kept coming up: trust.

I hadn't slowed down enough to think about it before, but trust was the glue holding us together. As a remote team, we have to rely on trust because we don't see or talk to everyone every day.

With everyone in the same room for the first time, I could see how much everyone respected each other and each other's work. We all wanted to do a good job to make our work worthy of everyone else's. I had no top down influence over this. We were working hard to not let each other down.

As a small team, our roles can be siloed at times. We often hand off work in chronological order from design to production to marketing to customer service. No one wanted to be the weak link in that chain. Even better, we all wanted to elevate everyone else's work through our own.

I'm grateful that our team had this attitude, even if I hadn't realized it until Montreal. My job then became to foster this trust and to keep it working in our favor.

Trust, Not Competitiveness

If channeled incorrectly, trust can become competition. We don't want to motivate each other through negative competition. Negative competition means people want to assign winners and losers. That attitude would only hurt the company and, consequently, the team.

We can compete with other, more established companies but not with each other. Either we all win together or we all lose together.

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz calls this "the right type of ambition" where people optimize for the company's success rather than their own personal ambitions. The latter should be the consequence, not the goal.

Garrett had a great insight about competition at our Lisbon retreat.

[Competition is] like a kick in the ass, but then your ass hurts.

Amen.

Building Trust

The next question for me was how to take new hires from strangers to trusted teammates.

The first step is to be great at hiring. We have to hire the right people and quickly remove the wrong people when we make mistakes. If the team doesn't trust our hiring processes to bring in great people, they will be suspicious of every new hire. I want trust, not suspicion, to be our default.

I hope we can get to the same point as Google as outlined in Laszlo Bock's book Work Rules! Laszlo says (emphasis mine),

In most organizations, you join and then have to prove yourself. At Google, there’s such faith in the quality of the hiring process that people join and on their first day are trusted and full members of their teams.

The hiring team and I are the first step in that process. We have to hire the right people. During the interview process and onboarding, I also have to show a new hire that we implicitly trust them. Trust is a two-way street.

We do this through transparency. Here are two examples from our hiring processes:

  • Taylor asked for access to our Google Analytics account for a trial project during her hiring process. I gave her full access and never thought much of it. She later told me that she wanted to see if we were making any money. 😏
  • After his initial interviews, Garrett asked to talk to Taylor, who wasn't part of the hiring team for his role but with whom he would be collaborating. We told him he could talk to whomever he wanted. The only guidance that we gave to Taylor was to be totally honest and to answer any questions Garrett had.

Once someone joins your team, show them that you trust them, don't just say it. Make them a full member of the team from Day 1. Give them access to the accounts that they will need. Show that you trust them by default.

The old saying is "trust but verify." I couldn't agree more. Trust implicitly but don't be stupid. If someone starts draining your bank account, you should probably ask why rather than trusting their judgement.

Without trust, you'll never be able to build a functional remote team. You'll have silos, battles over credit and ownership, and dysfunctional communication.

Further Reading

Trust in Remote Teams: Patrick, the industrial designer at Tortuga, on the same topic.