trust in the workplace

Our Crisis of Trust at Work
Our Crisis of Trust at Work 1080 721 Jason Lauritsen

As I’ve talked to leaders and managers over the past weeks, the two biggest issues on their minds have been supporting remote work and the “return to the office” plan. The general feeling I get from most I talk to is that they believe remote working is temporary, and they are expecting (or at least their leadership team is) to simply roll out some kind of plan that brings everyone back to the office relatively soon. A nice tidy return to normal.

Not.

Going.

To.

Happen.

The past two months have changed things more than you think. It’s laid bare some major issues that were already present in most workplaces, simmering just below the surface.

A storm is brewing. And I think it could be a pretty big one.

When offices started shutting down, it caused all kinds of chaos–particularly for managers and leaders who were firmly in the camp of “remote work could never work for us.” There was great concern about how to supervise these newly remote employees in order to make sure they were doing work.

Sure, there was also some concern for the employee’s wellbeing, but the broader concern was about productivity. People made jokes about employees watching Netflix, doing laundry, or parenting their children instead of working. Some organizations started making people log their hours. Others started hunting for ways to monitor if, when, and how much employees were working at home. They rationalized this as management and supervision necessity.

Thing is, none of this is about productivity. It’s actually about trust.

Trust at Work–Or the Lack Thereof

If your management team has spent much time worrying about if your employees are putting in enough hours or if they are actually working at home, you don’t trust your employees. If you did, you’d realize that they care about their jobs, and despite a bunch of new challenges, they are finding a way to get their work done. It won’t look like it has in the past, but they are getting it done.

Based on what I’ve been hearing from employers, that’s exactly what’s happening. Regardless of how well you are or are not supporting your remote employees, they are getting work done, often while caring for and educating their children and dealing with other big challenges.

The truth is that your ability to make remote work successful has less to do with technology or policy or process than it does how much you have trust in your people. Managers who assume the worst of employees and who have grown up in the “butts in seats” model of management are struggling mightily right now. Their employees always knew they weren’t really trusted but it’s now more painfully obvious than ever.

Managers who assume the worst of employees and who have grown up in the “butts in seats” model of management are struggling mightily right now.

Trust is always important to a successful working relationship, but it is vital when the relationship is “long distance.” If your organization had behaved in a way to earn employees’ trust before you sent them home, you are likely doing just fine with remote work. If you are struggling, that’s not good news when it comes to trust.

And the news gets worse. They probably don’t trust you either.

Up until two months ago, a lot of organizations had been telling employees that working from home, even for a day or two a week, was simply not possible. There were a lot of excuses made: security, technology, etc. It didn’t matter how much working remotely would improve the work-life for the employee.  The answer was always the same.

No.

Then along came a pandemic and within days, what was once impossible became possible. Remote work was enabled out of necessity and the charade was over.

Employees now know that working from home is not only possible but that they can make it work even when they are confined to their home or apartment with partners and children, even when charged with schooling their children at the same time. On top of that, they have learned that they may even enjoy working from home and find they actually be more productive over sitting in a cubicle.

Working in the office wasn’t exactly a paradise for everyone.  Remember, Gallup tells us we were only fully engaging about a third of our staff before this all happened. Being out of the office for a few months may have been a welcome respite for some.

You can’t blame the employee for being skeptical. If remote working is so easily possible despite being told the contrary for so long, what else isn’t true?

When their leaders send out the message suggesting it’s time to “come back to work” in the office, there will be skepticism and uncertainty. When the organization assures them that it’s safe and that they are taking every precaution, it would be hard to blame the employee if they don’t believe the message and push back.

From their perspective, leadership may feel less trustworthy than ever and they know that working remotely works. Why would they be asked to put their lives and safety at risk for no apparent reason other than “getting back to normal”?

A standoff is in the making. It’s a standoff born from our crisis of trust. 

Management doesn’t trust employees to work from home. And employees don’t trust management enough to come back to the office. Sure, employees can be forced to come back, but at what cost?

I am aware that this scenario is cynical and doesn’t represent every case. There are companies out there who have done a great job building and maintaining trust throughout this pandemic. For example, Twitter just made a big move to allow employees to make the decision about coming back to the office (maybe never). This is what trust at scale looks like.

But there are many more examples of the contrary. The violation of trust around the viability of remote working feels pretty minor compared to things like Uber using a 3 minute Zoom call to tell 3,500 people they no longer have jobs. Jobs are being slashed to save profit margins, inequity is being amplified, and people are watching. If trust wasn’t already lacking in these organizations, it is gone now.

This didn’t happen overnight. Trust has been on the decline around the world for several years. A scan of the Edelman Trust Barometer research reinforces that this isn’t a new issue.

Trust has been on the decline around the world for several years.

And the really inconvenient truth is that trust takes time (months or years) to build and seconds to break.

What Does All of This Mean About Trust at Work?

There are so many things happening so fast, that it’s been hard to know where to focus. My goal in writing this post is to help you focus on what really matters. If you aren’t talking with managers and leaders about trust and building trust with employees right now, move it to the top of your list.

Essential employees on the front lines need to trust that everything is being done to prioritize their safety and the safety of customers. They need to trust that you care about them more than a couple of extra dollars.

Work-from-home employees need to know that you trust them to figure out how to get work done. And that you wouldn’t ask them to put their lives or wellbeing at risk unnecessarily. Remote working isn’t going anywhere. It appears that we may be dealing with this virus into 2022. Even if it is resolved sooner than that, remote work isn’t going anywhere now that the people know what’s possible. A recent IBM study of 25,000 people revealed that 54 percent of those surveyed want remote work to remain their primary way of working. And 70 percent want it to at least be an option for them in the future.

It’s never too late to start building trust. Now is the right time.

While I’m not going to try to give you a comprehensive class on trust-building here, I’ll point you to one of the best resources available: The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey. This book provides some of the most actionable insights into trust building that I’ve found including a list of behaviors that build trust.  Below are a few to help you get started.

  1. Clarify expectations. Uncertainty is everywhere right now. One way to remove some of that uncertainty and foster trust is to work with employees to outline and document crystal clear expectations for their job performance. Make sure your employees can clearly articulate not only what work product is expected of them, but also “how” you expect them to work in the home environment. If you have expectations for responsiveness or availability, those need to be very clearly communicated. Even if the employee disagrees with the expectation, making it explicit and clear will help preserve trust in the relationship.
  2. Listen first. Don’t assume you know what an employee is dealing with. Coach managers to do frequent check-ins where they spend much of that time asking questions and listening actively to what the employee says. A quick way to lose trust is to jump to conclusions about what an employee feels or what they need. To build trust, ask meaningful questions and really listen to what you hear. Then use that valuable insight to provide the support they need.
  3. Extend trust. This is one of the most powerful, albeit counter-intuitive, means of building trust. When you demonstrate that you trust someone, it makes them more likely to trust you in return. This reciprocal nature of trust has been proven through research and it works. My rule of thumb as a leader has always been to trust people more than they expect. In a vast majority of cases, the person responds by being even more trustworthy than I expected.

In my opinion, the organizations that are most effective at building and maintaining trust will be those that emerge from the pandemic and economic downturn in the best shape, positioned to thrive in the future.

 

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