The Future of Work lies in a two-way Trust Culture

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Necessity, the saying goes, is the mother of invention, and this may well be true when it comes to the levels of trust that are in place in many organisations in this strange year of 2020. Trust is a fundamental ingredient of a change-ready, modern organisation, which is why it is a foundational component of Bloor’s Mutable Business framework.

What impact has covid-19 had on levels of trust, and what opportunities (and barriers) is current experience creating?

Covid-19 will not be the first time in our history that people have been forced to place trust in colleagues, or indeed outsiders, whether they wanted to or not. It has happened, for example, when soldiers, especially conscripts, go to war together, and there’s some quite strong evidence that veterans in such circumstances tend to form deep and long-lasting bonds with their comrades. We’re not at war, but the past few months has been traumatic, and covid-19 has given many people in the (increasingly virtual) workplace little choice but to place unprecedented levels of trust in their colleagues. The obvious example is that, working at home, largely unsupervised and unobserved, staff may not be following the same practices or keeping the same hours as when they’re in the office. Whether that matters is a different question. If I can produce the same output in five hours at my desk at home as it would have taken me eight or nine in an interruption-ridden office an hour away from where I live, nobody is going to be too upset. They will, though, if I am cooking dinner or off for a walk when it’s my shift to be taking incoming phone calls. But the trust issue is more nuanced than this. If I am used to being in the physical workplace and know I’ll get the chance for a casual chat with my boss at some point during the working day, it isn’t just a frustration that this channel of communication is now denied me. Those casual workplace interactions are trust in action and, unnurtured, I will worry that the relationships that they spawn will deteriorate very quickly. That’s why, as we discussed in a recent post in this series [Changing Leadership Roles for the Future of Work] leaders have had to adapt very quickly to the distanced world of 2020, ensuring they create an environment in which informal communications work, albeit in different ways than when there was physical proximity.

With so many staff removed from their physical place of work, employers do have to place unprecedented levels of trust in their absent staff, whilst employees are obliged to honour and respect the trust that is being placed in them, whatever the circumstances; even if they believe that, covid-19 apart, never in a million years would their employer have allowed them to take their work home. And, whilst sweeping generalisations are of course dangerous, it is safe to say that there are plentiful examples of this enforced investment of trust bearing fruit. Many employers have found that their staff respond very well to having less supervision, whilst staff not only revelled in the greater responsibility that almost inevitably came with physical separation; they also found themselves reciprocating with increased levels of trust in their employers. Some of the employer approval and trust ratings that I’ve seen since lockdown have been at unprecedented highs.

This is, of course, far from universally true, but we should be asking what we can learn from those situations where enforced trust has had a positive effect. Most importantly, how are these positive developments sustained through the inevitably bumpy journey ahead? To develop this point, it’s worth looking at remote working in a little more depth, because it is clearly going to be an increasingly significant factor in future working models. We’re living through a real-life pilot now, so let’s make sure we draw as much learning from the experience as possible. In order to do so, it’s worth asking how strong your organisation’s trust culture is.

If the honest answer is that it isn’t great, it’s important to accept that you won’t be able to change it overnight. It’s better, and more realistic, to think of the enforced introduction – or extension – of home / remote working as a highly visible opportunity to start doing things differently. And how you start will have a big bearing on how you carry on.

People “work from home” in many different ways. Some genuinely fit the identikit image of not quite getting round to getting dressed all day and work quite happily in a super-relaxed state. Others go to the opposite extreme and get ready for work in all but the commute. There are variations of all shapes and sizes in between. I’d like to say that this is because each person is operating in the way that works best for them; I doubt that’s true, but as an employer you can help them to do so. They don’t need to follow the conventions of the workplace – not all of them, anyway – and employers can help their staff to discover what new-found flexibility they’ve got, how to make best use of it and what duties and responsibilities sit alongside it. They can help remote / home workers to think through what working environment is going to fit best with their own personality, working style and socialisation needs, whilst also satisfying the requirements of their customers, their colleagues and their employer.

How well each individual or organisation accommodates this array of styles and preferences goes pretty deeply into culture and leadership style. In many environments, it’s a huge step to relinquish tight controls on staff – and sometimes it isn’t the right thing to do. Clearly, there are tasks for which precision, compliance and accuracy are vitally important. They’re also, incidentally, often the tasks that are prime candidates for automation, leaving the humans to operate in those cognitively and emotionally more complex areas where control is less likely to be needed or welcomed.

Irrespective of the roles that people are performing and their suitability for detailed monitoring, what they all have in common is that they’re being carried out by human beings and it’s at a human level that employers need to be sensitive to what they do and how they do it. We mentioned in [Changing Leadership Roles for the Future of Work] a recent post the Business Insider prediction that over 80% of Fortune 500 companies will expand their employee monitoring capabilities by the end of 2020, and indeed it would be easy to lose sight of what surveillance – formal or otherwise – is already going on. Employers may be able to view private messages on the corporate Slack account, or to take random screenshots of a remote employee’s monitor, or even record every keystroke. It matters enormously how they do this. It would be easy to undermine what sense of trust has built up, or indeed to reinforce existing levels of mistrust and suspicion, for little or no advantage. And perhaps employers should remember that probably the biggest threat they’ll face is employees overworking and burning out, rather than “skiving off” from doing the work they are being paid for. An HBR article in pre-covid days noted “most often, employees are left on their own to figure out how to manage their time in ways that will reduce stress and burnout. They have limited ability to fight a corporate culture in which overwork is the norm and even celebrated.” If this was true three years ago, how much worse could it be when staff are working from home, getting the vibe from their boss that he or she is terrified of a downturn in productivity?

And that brings us back to the organisation’s trust culture. If trust is strong, it will come quite naturally to you, and your staff, to have conversations with them about how they, and you, will make remote working a success, possibly even an integral part of your business model in the future, and indeed what systems and controls you will be putting in place to assure that success. If it is not, acknowledge it, put yourself in your employees’ shoes and ask yourself what fears and concerns they may have about being entrusted – genuinely or allegedly – to manage themselves more than usual. In a low-trust culture, the fear of being criticised or sanctioned for doing something wrong is high. How well you succeed in alleviating this fear will not only determine the success of what for many organisations is going to be the long-term reality of work in the time of covid-19; more than this, it could give you the opportunity to start a fundamental, positive change in building your trust culture.

This post is part of our Future of Work series. You can read the previous post, the next post, or find them all in our Future of Work section. If you’d like to discuss how we can help get you prepared for the way work and business is changing, then please contact us.