Building trust among a distributed workforce is a challenge but with a little help, you can learn to navigate that challenge and create strong relationships.
Trust is the key to all successful relationships, and that includes relationships at work. As Harvard Business professor Frances Frei puts it, “Trust is the foundation of everything we do.”
The global pandemic has changed the way we work, making it more important than ever to focus on building trust—even if the methods and means of doing so have changed.
So what does trust mean in a changing workplace? And how can leaders build cultures of trust with distributed employees working both at home and in the office?
In this article, we’ll dive into why a focus on trust is essential for the new normal of hybrid work, how to conduct a trust audit at your organization, and critical signs that your trust-building efforts are working.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought its fair share of unknowns, one thing is for sure: Remote work is here to stay, whether via hybrid models or fully-remote options. A recent McKinsey survey found that 63% of employees favor hybrid or fully-remote working options, and are willing to leave if employers don’t offer them.
The Great Resignation
Indeed, a “Great Resignation” is underway—65% of employees are looking for a new job, and 88% of executives say they’re experiencing higher turnover than usual. And it isn’t just younger employees in their 20s who are leaving—employees in their 30s, 40s, and 50s all increased their resignation rates by more than 38% in the last few years.
The Great Resignation is particularly affecting women, with women’s resignation rate 17% higher than men's in 2021. As diverse groups and more experienced employees exit the workforce, productivity, knowledge sharing, mentoring, company morale, and trust building are all impacted.
So why is the Great Resignation happening? Remote work, burnout, increased compensation, and improved life balance all play a part. In a PwC study on the future of remote work, flexibility was among employees’ top four reasons for seeking a new role.
It’s no coincidence then that trust is imperative to flexible work environments being successful, as trust is key to getting work done without supervision, using time wisely, and communicating priorities effectively. However, building trust in this new working environment comes with it’s own set of unique challenges.
Proximity bias in remote work
Just because most employees prefer remote work doesn’t mean they love every aspect of it. Nearly 40% of employees say they struggle to maintain a strong connection with coworkers while working remotely. After all, it’s hard to have casual chats around the water cooler, sans water cooler.
The lack of personal connections built over casual conversations can erode trust over time. Plus, we know that remote work silos employees into groups based on mutual interests and proximity—a phenomenon known as proximity bias.
Proximity bias affects trust in several ways, from the average employee to top leadership:
When it comes to building trust in the workplace, it’s no longer a question of making hybrid and remote working environments function for the time being. Company leaders need to start asking themselves how to build trust in any environment, starting today.
With many teams still avoiding large gatherings, managers can no longer fall back on the old “trust fall” type exercises as their main trust-building effort of the year. The good news is, there are several approaches leaders can take to focus on building trust in new remote working environments.
A trust audit is one thing we suggest managers do to proactively improve trust among employees and leaders. It’s easy, only takes a few minutes, and helps managers, leaders, and employees alike take inventory of their relationships at work and identify areas where trust can be improved.
Performing a trust audit is simple. First, set some time aside (30-45 minutes will do!) for introspection. Then follow the outline below to ask yourself key questions about intent, credibility, and empathy in your working relationships. Afterward, set goals to improve and track your progress. Repeat as needed.
Identifying the reasons behind a relationship is a great starting point when it comes to determining and building trust. Ask yourself one or more of the following questions to determine how well your intent is aligned with the other person in the relationship:
Building trust is hard work, and having a starting point to reference helps companies and individuals keep working at it. Starting with the foundation of your work relationships can put everything into perspective going forward.
The second component to building trust is credibility. After all, it’s hard to trust someone who doesn’t do what they say they’ll do. Ask yourself the following questions to rate your own credibility
If the answer to any of these questions is unsatisfactory, you might want to focus on building that credibility.
One way to build credibility is by having integrity. Becoming reliable and known for your core values (and actually embodying them) can work wonders in helping organizations and people build trust with one another.
Having integrity while working remotely can mean working the hours you say you will, creating systems of accountability for employees, and purposefully seeking out the opinions of others to avoid proximity bias. Another way to demonstrate credibility is by keeping commitments. Small things like showing up to meetings on time (even on Zoom), communicating expectations when they change, and being someone people can count on add up in big ways when it comes to building trust.
Focus on empathy
Lastly, all relationships with trust are built on empathy. At the end of the day, we’re all humans who need to know our contributions are important and valued. Here are some ways to identify whether you might have an empathy gap keeping you from building trust in a relationship:
Empathy gaps are the most common issue people face when it comes to building trust. One of the best ways you can show others you care is by giving them your full attention. Even though you might not be in the same room physically, you can still set aside physical distractions like your phone, working on other projects, or notifications that may interrupt virtual facetime.
Trust takes time to build. After all, the journey to create a more trusting organization, team, or relationship with an individual is never really over. It’s an ongoing process that requires you to evaluate and reevaluate whether or not you’ve created a culture of trust.
In the new normal of hybrid work, building trust is even more important. Distributed employees need to feel empowered with flexible work environments built on mutual trust, managers need to take extra efforts to avoid proximity bias, and a real effort needs to be made to avoid the effects of the Great Resignation for all employees.
Whether you’ve started a trust audit or are just wondering how trust manifests itself among your team, here are three signs that trust building is working:
Building trust takes time and looks different for everybody. Don't get discouraged if it takes longer than you anticipated to build a strong, trusting relationship with a member of your team.
If you want more tips on creating trusting relationships, consider signing up to attend one of our free Campfires entitled "Foundations of Trust" to learn from an expert guide and hear from colleagues who have had similar experiences to you in the past.