Building Bridges from Afar: 8 Actions to Nurture Trust in the Remote Work Environment
If there is one shift in how we work that resulted from the COVID pandemic, it’s that we embraced the possibility of working remotely or hybrid, where some work is done remotely and some at the office.
The first question that comes to mind is what remote or hybrid work does to productivity. If it hurts productivity, we shouldn’t embrace it. At the same time, if it increases productivity, we certainly should. Research revealed results in both directions, which is troubling by itself and caused me to wonder how accurate and free of confirmation bias that research is. But the most revealing study was one done by Microsoft in late 2022. When asked whether remote work increases productivity, 87% of employees said it did, but only 12% of leaders agreed. So, I guess it depends on who you ask…
Working remotely also has trust implications. It relies on trust, but it also affects trust.
The purpose of this article is not to address whether remote or hybrid work increases productivity or even to address the relationships with trust. It’s to give 8 specific pieces of advice on maintaining and even growing trust while working remotely or hybrid.
#1: Remote/Hybrid work is not appropriate for every job or task
Remote or hybrid work arrangements may not be suitable for all jobs or tasks. A study conducted in 2022 found that 58% of employees were offered the option to work remotely, and of those, 87% accepted. However, the acceptance rate varied across industries, with the computer industry showing the highest acceptance rate at 89%. For example, software programmers often work independently and can be highly productive in remote settings. On the other hand, certain industries like food preparation, pilots, surgeons, and truck drivers require physical presence and cannot be performed remotely. It is essential to recognize that different roles within a company may have different remote work possibilities. Therefore, evaluating each job and task individually is crucial rather than implementing a one-size-fits-all policy.
#2: Remote/Hybrid work isn’t suitable for every person
Working remotely may not be suitable for every individual due to personality differences. Extroverts, for example, thrive in collaborative environments where they can bounce ideas off others, while introverts may prefer working independently. Personalities, such as Myers-Briggs and working genius types, can influence an individual's preference for remote or office work. Factors like self-discipline, a distraction-free environment, and access to necessary equipment also play a role. Companies need to assess employees' personalities, provide appropriate training and equipment, and periodically evaluate the effectiveness of remote work arrangements. While remote work offers benefits, it should be implemented with consideration for individual differences and regularly reviewed for productivity and satisfaction.
#3: Avoid assumptions and covert expectations
Leaders and employees must avoid assumptions and covert expectations to enhance productivity and trust in remote or hybrid work setups. Assumptions arise due to a lack of factual information during initial interactions. In physical office environments, it's easier to clarify uncertainties. However, remote work presents challenges in determining the appropriate communication method. Recognizing assumptions and differentiating facts from assumptions is the first step. Instead of assuming, it is important to ask questions.
Additionally, clear expectations should be communicated to avoid disappointment. Feedback becomes even more vital in remote work scenarios. Providing feedback with genuine care and receiving it with importance fosters trust and productivity. Remote work can thrive by avoiding assumptions, setting clear expectations, and valuing feedback while maintaining trust.
#4: Make information available, and communicate what’s necessary
Effective communication is key to productivity and trust. However, communication undergoes several distortions from the sender's brain to the receiver's brain. To address this, it is important to close the loop in communication by ensuring acknowledgment and understanding. Additionally, body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions are crucial in conveying consistent messages. Balancing information sharing is essential. While withholding information reduces trust, excessive communication can overwhelm. To solve this, make information easily accessible while proactively communicating relevant messages based on recipients' interests. Responding thoughtfully to emails is important, but acknowledging receipt and providing a timeline for response builds trust. Lastly, avoid using BCC to maintain transparency and trust unless explicitly communicated to all parties involved.
#5: Use more empathy
Empathy is a crucial aspect of effective communication and building trust. It goes beyond compassion or sympathy and involves understanding and seeing things from the other person's perspective. Studies have shown that individualism has increased over the years, leading to decreased empathy. To foster empathy, consider the different sides of a story and acknowledge Maslow's hierarchy of needs. People may have varying concerns and priorities based on their circumstances. Empathy requires active listening and genuine intent to understand rather than just replying. In remote or hybrid work environments, cultivating empathy becomes even more vital. An example of empathy is labeling meetings with clear names that make sense to all participants.
#6: Increase time and intimacy
Increasing time and intimacy in interactions is essential for building trust. This involves increasing the frequency, length, and predictability of interactions, including face-to-face interactions via video conferencing. Trust takes time to develop, similar to how trust in cruise control or autonomous cars grows with experience. Spending more time together, and having longer and more predictable interactions, strengthens trust between individuals or teams. However, remote work reduces time and intimacy, making video conferencing crucial. Intimacy in communication is higher in person than in low-intimacy methods like email or text messages, which leave room for assumptions. The higher the intimacy, the more trust can be built. Body language plays a significant role in communication, as it either supports or contradicts spoken words. In remote or hybrid environments, prioritizing increased interaction time and intimacy is crucial for building trust.
#7: How can you monitor that your employees are working?
Monitoring employees' work and productivity can be a concern when working remotely. Various software tools are available to track employees' activities, such as tracking their projects and even mouse movements. However, relying solely on monitoring software creates a cycle of distrust and may lead to countermeasures from employees. Trust is reciprocal, and when employees feel trusted, they tend to behave in a trustworthy manner. Conversely, employees who are constantly monitored may seek ways to bypass the system. Trusting employees and demonstrating that trust fosters a cycle of trustworthiness. However, trust should be balanced and not extended blindly. If monitoring is deemed necessary, it may indicate underlying issues with either the employees' or the employer's attitude. Trusting employees and fostering trustworthiness should be the starting point.
#8: Avoid employees engagement surveys
Employee engagement is a crucial factor that is closely intertwined with trust in the workplace. Extensive research conducted by Paul Zak revealed a strong correlation of 76% between employee engagement and reported levels of trust. Increasing trust levels from the bottom to the top quartile resulted in a remarkable 76% boost in actual employee engagement. However, employee engagement remains a significant challenge in organizations. A recent Gallup study indicated that only 23% of employees are actively engaged, while 18% are actively disengaged, and 59% fall into the category of "quitely quitting." While employee engagement surveys are commonly used, they have their limitations. When trust is low, employees may question the anonymity of such surveys and fear potential repercussions for providing negative feedback. Paradoxically, as trust increases, employees may provide more accurate responses but report lower engagement due to their confidence in the survey's anonymity. Another common pitfall is conducting engagement surveys without taking any meaningful action based on the results. To foster employee engagement effectively, organizations must adopt a proactive approach that continuously listens to employees, acknowledges their concerns, and takes appropriate action. Rather than relying solely on engagement surveys, organizations should prioritize building and nurturing trust, as it has been proven to positively impact engagement and other critical aspects of the work environment.
(Edited using ChatGPT from a transcript of the podcast episode).
Want to hear more? Listen to the podcast episode at: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s10e1-building-bridges-from-afar-8-actions-to-nurture/id1569249060?i=1000619370642
Dr. Yoram Solomon is an expert in trust, employee engagement, teamwork, organizational culture, and leadership. He is the author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a three-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that explains what trust is and how to build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events and a contributor to HR.com magazine.