Trust is important no matter where your employees work. Trust fosters psychological safety, promotes intellectual risk-taking, prevents micromanagement, and helps employees feel more confident and secure when working with their colleagues.
During periods of high uncertainty and change, as all companies and employees have experienced in the past two years, trust is severely tested.
Since nearly 70% of full-time U.S. employees have worked remotely, if organizations want to thrive and excel in this hybrid work world, they must learn how to build trust in a virtual, digital environment.
The benefits and risks of trust and mistrust
Trust is a powerful force that can improve loyalty and increase credibility. Trust also provides the benefit of the doubt when someone seeks to be understood and believed.
When workers share an office space, managers can physically monitor their team’s productivity and interpersonal interactions. When trust exists, managers are able to effectively direct the work and quickly resolve interpersonal conflicts. Since communication between employees tends to be more spontaneous and courteous, this can organically build trust within workgroups.
Conversely, mistrust often leads to micromanagement. Helicopter managers bypass the need for genuine trust, but at a cost. Distrust within teams lowers productivity and micromanagement leads to disengaged employees, costly absenteeism, and even more expensive turnover.
In hybrid and virtual work arrangements — where in-person social engagement is off the table — building genuine trust is both more critical and more challenging. Digital communication can be more stressful and strained, and people are more likely to be less civil and disrespectful when hidden behind a screen. Additionally, sparked by a lack of personal facetime combined with less insight into the work process, virtual micromanagement becomes a risk as team leaders tend to over-monitor remote teams.
Building trust virtually with better, more frequent, digital communication
Virtual work environment or not, trust is always built and earned over time with actions often speaking louder than words. High-performing and well-respected companies and their leaders create a culture of trust by sharing information quickly, freely, and honestly. When their actions correspond with their words, this builds stronger relationships with employees. On the flipside, insincerity, deception, and dishonesty erode trust.
Studies show that open lines of communication lead to higher interpersonal trust, and vice versa. In remote office environments, where there is a lack of spontaneous communication, communication can be opened up by scheduling time for it. The way leaders communicate (or don’t) — and how often — sets the tone. They can win trust by communicating more openly and more often.
Creating a communications plan that builds trust
To initiate both formal and informal communications programs and routine evaluations, companies should establish a consistent communications policy with well-defined processes and tools.
A good communication plan will outline your communication norms — especially if any norms have shifted to better accommodate remote and hybrid employees. What are the preferred channels for various types of communication? When do you use email instead of chat? Is the use of emojis acceptable or wasteful?
You might want to recommend using email for important messages in specific scenarios. We recommend using email:
- when the message requires undivided attention,
- for emotionally difficult topics,
- to share technically-complex information,
- when recipients need to schedule or complete an action item (like selecting benefits).
We use Teams for meetings and collaborative chat, and we clearly explain that people are not expected to respond (and should not expect a response) in real-time outside of the defined collaboration times. We all need focused time to get things accomplished.
We recommend the use of video calls for company and workgroup meetings, as well as for any communications requiring an immediate response or any confidential or sensitive topics. Managers can establish daily, weekly, and monthly team video meetings as well as routine one-on-ones to maintain face-to-face communications.
With remote office environments, it pays to establish “water cooler” and “lunchroom” style conservations, which may or may not be work-related but will still work to establish more trusted relationships.
When employees understand how to communicate, and when, they are better able to align with your communication norms. When leaders follow the same processes, you build trust.
Trust others to build even more trust
If you want to build trust with your team, you may have to give up a little control. With remote staff, it can be a challenge to keep a handle on what is actually getting done. One way to do this is to clearly communicate your norms and expectations and then allow your team members to handle the details. With expectations agreed upon, you can step back and trust your team to do the work.