From On-Site to Out-of-Sight: How to Build Trust in the Remote Workplace
We’ve been talking a lot about remote working on the blog recently - after all, it’s how the Jobsity team has operated since 2012 and at the very core of what we do here. We’ve looked at some of the key tools and systems that can help remote teams maximize efficiency and performance. We’ve also shared some tips on staying secure, tackling pain points, and keeping people motivated when they’re not working together in the office. But none of these can support a successful remote team without something altogether more elemental: trust.
Trust is key to any successful workplace, but it becomes especially important when teams are working remotely. We tend to trust what we can see - indeed, the whole premise of ‘office face time’ was that if people are at work, then they must be working. It’s why Bill Gates used to memorize the number plates of his employees to track when they came and went from the office in Microsoft’s early days. Attitudes have changed a lot since then, but some managers will have still found it unsettling to suddenly have their staff forced to work from home during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Faced with such uncertainty or anxiety, the temptation may be to reach for greater control - to micromanage from afar. But this can send a message to workers that they are not trustworthy, a sure way to damage morale and loyalty. In fact, evidence suggests you can build a far more stable and effective operation based on trust. A Harvard study in 2017 found that, compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies reported: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.
How do you build this trust without the intimacy that develops organically when people spend a lot of time working together in a shared physical space? Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. People will respond in different ways and there will always be an element of ‘trial and error’ as you nurture relationships with and between team members. But here are some fundamental tips to build trust in your remote workplace:
1. Set the tone early, and stick to it
Trust in the workplace is contagious - people who feel trusted will be more likely to trust in return. With a new remote team, the onus is on managers to clearly demonstrate that they trust team members to perform and flourish in a new working environment. That means displaying confidence in each employee’s willingness and ability to adapt to remote work, encouraging them to meet challenges, and show initiative. It means making sure everyone has access to the relevant equipment, software and training. It also means being dependable, available, and personable - if you want the team to adopt these values, you need to lead by example.
2.Transparency is key
Remote managers should set out clear workplace values, norms, and expectations from the start. This should include guidelines on how often the team is expected to update on progress or get together for virtual meetings. The next step is to remain consistent - nothing will erode trust faster than changing the rules on the fly.
Project management tools like Asana or Trello also ensure remote team members are all on the same page when it comes to tasks, responsibilities, and deadlines. Sharing this information in real-time should prevent anyone from mistakenly thinking they’re putting in more effort than others. Over time, the focus on transparency and accountability will help engender trust throughout the whole team.
3. Keep everyone in the loop
You can’t foster a high-trust work environment without active, fluid communication channels. While email and phone calls still are fine for certain issues, when remote working it’s a good idea to use public channels on platforms like Slack. This ensures everyone feels connected, involved, and up to date with what’s going on. Even when decisions are made offline or in a smaller group, it’s worth sending an update to the whole team so that no-one feels left out. Encouraging regular feedback - anonymous or otherwise - is another way to get employees to participate and have a say in the things that matter most to them about their job.
4. Empower people to manage their own time
Mobile technology has already liberated many of us from the rigid nine-to-five mindset, but managing a remote team effectively means fully embracing flexible work schedules. The primary focus for team leaders should be on output and results, not how many hours people are ‘at work’ each day. Rather than using tools to monitor what everyone is doing at all times, it’s better to encourage and empower people to manage their workload around their own schedules and preferences. This sends out a clear message - ‘I trust you to deliver on what we agreed’ - while giving people the flexibility that studies show most workers crave. Even better, a trust-based approach to time management could mean scrapping a number of control and monitoring measures, freeing everybody up to focus on more productive tasks.
5. Develop a healthy remote culture
People trust each other more when they develop intimate relationships. This tends to happen naturally when people spend much of the day working in close proximity - team members get to know each other over non-work chats by the water cooler, shared lunches, or in the bar after work. It is harder to replicate this with remote teams, but worth trying to build and maintain a healthy workplace culture.
If your company is transitioning from “in-person” to remote work, the challenge will be to ensure existing cohesion and relationships are maintained in the virtual space. Again, make full use of remote work tools like Slack and Zoom to keep people engaged and connected to the team, wherever they may be. That means also using them for informal, light-hearted interactions: trying setting up Slack channels for sharing jokes, recipes, or fitness tips, or inviting everyone to an after-work happy-hour at the ‘Zoom bar’. Another idea is to pair random team members for a virtual coffee or Donut, while new arrivals could be assigned a mentor or ‘buddy’ to help them settle in.
If you’re forming a new remote team from scratch, it might take a bit longer to build a rapport among members, but the basic principle is the same. Encouraging people to connect at a social and human level will foster productive work relationships built on mutual trust and respect.
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