The role trust plays with a remote workforce

Research shows that employees in high-trust organisations are better at collaborating, more productive and show greater loyalty than their peers in low-trust companies. There is also evidence to suggest they suffer less from stress and anxiety, which enables stronger performance at work.

But trust in the workplace can be harder to build and maintain during remote working. Positive leadership is more important than ever to ensure leaders remain credible and reliable when dealing with a remote workforce. If the coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it’s that with childcare or home help removed, we all have the same personal issues to juggle. Executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts agrees this is a novel situation for most employers.

“This is a level of intimacy that isn’t normally seen,” she says. “We’re normally told to leave our personal lives at home and focus on the job. Now the majority of us are actually at home, we need to establish new boundaries and those boundaries are the same for everyone.”

The benefit of the increase of remote work is that it’s possible this new way of working will result in a more trusting work environment when, and if, life returns to normal.

Motivate employees by checking in regularly

Checking in regularly with the workforce has never been more important. While line managers will want to hold regular one to ones in the current climate, “it’s important the conversation isn’t solely task focused,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School.

There’s a real danger of taking checking-in too far. “It’s crucially not about micro-managing colleagues, but checking on how they’re coping on a personal level,” says Sir Cary. Recent Office for National Statistics data has shown that almost half of people surveyed were affected by high levels of anxiety in late-March when the UK entered lockdown and 40 per cent of working people feel the lockdown is adversely affecting their work.

“With these high levels of anxiety in the UK workforce, frequent face-to-face time, albeit virtual, is critical for managers to show they care, building trust as a result,” he says.

Build trust in the workplace by letting your team set its own goals

While it’s not possible entirely to reconstruct your business structure from scratch, now is a good time to revisit legacy hierarchies and encourage flexible working.

David Amor, chief business development officer at MAG Interactive, a mobile gaming company, says his firm’s management structure has always been flat, “aside from a brief period when we tried a more traditional structure and decided it didn’t work for us”.

This flat set-up, says Amor, “means we can empower teams to give them a greater sense of ownership and job satisfaction, which we found also resulted in them making higher-quality decisions.”

Companies behind the curve

He adds that a flat structure, which trusts teams to set their own goals, is particularly well suited to remote working. It allows for greater work-life balance and Amor notes that teams have adapted very well to working from home as a result.

“It gives them a sense of ownership of the targets they work towards and it also means they know what the company defines as a success,” he says.

Question yourself as well as your remote team

Building a good level of trust when staff are working from home requires a collaborative approach and now is a good time for managers to confront their own lack of trust and any control issues.

“Through remote working, leaders are finding, contrary to their fears, teams are even more productive and performance is higher than when teams were office based,” says Paul Russell, managing director of business training company Luxury Academy. “What most leaders are not doing, however, is questioning their own part. Could it be we as managers are distracting our staff more than we realise and are we actually the cause of slower performance in the office?” he asks.

It’s important, particularly now, to request staff input rather than rigidly steering direction. Because managers cannot walk over to a staff member to check progress informally, it’s crucial to ensure their leadership style doesn’t morph into a more autocratic approach than they would normally use.

However, Russell warns: “There will always be a staff member who sees working at home as a euphemism for relaxing at home and this is where trust could break down. In this case, strong boundaries, expectations and timelines should be implemented.”

One to ones are incredibly important to maintain trust in the workplace and should be prioritised, however hard that might be. This means video-calling might be essential to maintain body language.

In an office, a manager would notice if a team member was becoming frustrated or stressed and take them to one side to find out why. “It’s all too easy for a difficult situation to get out of control for an employee,” says executive coach Roberts, “if their team leader doesn’t take the time to sit down with them, face to face, and talk about their day or week.”

Think about daily communication activities and updates and how they will take place. Create a plan, share it with the team and stick to it.

When trust in the workplace breaks down

“Trust is hard earned and easily lost,” says Colin Lange, executive director of culture and engagement at global brand and design consultancy Landor. “The gap between what leaders say and what they do must be as narrow as possible because once it widens you will immediately begin to erode any trust built.”

The first step to stemming this tide is to identify where the breakdown occurred. It is then imperative not only to recognise the cause of the breakdown, but to acknowledge the role you played.

“At that point, you can swiftly correct the behaviour and make a conscious effort to close the gap. Great leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable and admit any missteps, but real leadership comes from the ability to rebuild trust through competence, reliability, honesty and empathy,” Lange concludes.