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Lockdown 2.0: The Importance Of Building Trust In A Remote Workplace

By Lucinda Carney, Founder and CEO of Actus

The pandemic has triggered a need to rethink our people management approaches. With departments struggling to manage their staff performance effectively, organisations have had to move away from the usual ‘one size fits all’ transactional approach that we were able to get away with in a face-to-face environment. Instead, remote working has ignited a new focus – requiring something less visible or tangible, rather, it has required organisations to harness empathy, flexibility and most crucially, trust.

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Although there is now hope on the horizon in the shape of potential vaccines; the reality is that widespread remote working is likely to continue, so how can we build and maintain high levels of trust during current and future lockdowns?

Trust as the foundation of successful relationships

Effective collaboration is rooted in a sense of trust and is necessary for all successful relationships. Trust equates to our level of confidence in someone, in their integrity, values, and abilities. If you imagine someone you trust, it’s likely a relationship complemented by freedom and happiness. It is pervasive but invisible, and, in any setting, generates morale, motivation and enthusiasm.

A lack of trust in someone, however, generates suspicion – we tend to be wary of them, self-conscious about our own behaviour, and are less open or relaxed. Take a second to turn this around to someone you employ – the extent to which they feel trusted by you will impact directly on their ability to achieve.

Going a step further, if we shift this perspective to a virtual working environment, where a high trust relationship already exists, the transition to a remote management style becomes relatively straight-forward. Research shows that employees in high-trust organisations are better at collaborating, more productive and demonstrate greater loyalty and performance – with evidence to suggest they suffer less from stress and anxiety.

Where a relationship of low trust exists, concerns are likely to be magnified without the placebo reassurance of being able to physically see people throughout the working day. That’s why now, more than ever, building trusting relationships will be the foundation of not only a productive and loyal workforce but one that fosters the well-being, prosperity and overall happiness of their employees.

Trust as an essential component for productivity

Studies show that working remotely doesn’t hinder productivity. In fact, 94% percent of 800 employers surveyed by Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm, said that productivity was the same as or even higher than it was before the pandemic. In a recent Actus survey, 78% thought that trust directly impacted the level of productivity in staff. So, when it comes to performance it all boils down to the level of trust within the workforce rather than whether they’re in the office or not.

Of course, the pandemic has taken a toll on employees across the world and leadership teams have had to revert away from their well-established face-to-face management style. They have been forced to make this transition quickly, and for the most part, without training. So, what makes the second lockdown any difference from the first? Now, we have the gift of perspective and hindsight.

We can look back and learn from the organisations that have thrived in the face of adversity, but we can also take notes from the organisations who have not. The difference, it seems, all came down to one thing – the leadership style of people and performance managers.

The measures were neither complicated nor technical. Rather, it was simply about going back to our natural instincts, listening effectively, demonstrating humility and being open and honest. Sometimes the smallest changes create the biggest impact – such as making statements that emphasise the importance of outputs over presenteeism, honouring your commitments or simply telling people that we trust them to do the best they can.

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A human-centric focus 

Putting people first is about being human, it means recognising that the people we work with have other priorities, passions and challenges and these need to sit in harmony with work – so it’s important to take the time to personalise interactions with employees. Trust is built naturally by getting to know people as individuals and sharing information about each other’s lives. When managers understand their people, they can adjust their management style to get the best out of their employees. Perhaps, their workforce is motivated by helping other people? They may enjoy team socials or wellbeing challenges. Or, some may find clear goals or processes more of a motivator.

Perhaps, learning your colleague has a passion for theatre or is an excellent piano player may have been superfluous to people management in the days of the office. But as we look back on the months that have passed, the pandemic has shone a florescent light on what really matters. By restricting physical human interaction, we’ve all come to realise just how important it actually is, both at work and home. So, while finding out your colleagues’ keen interest in birdwatching may once have seemed like an idle conversation – in this new age of virtual people management taking a genuine interest will be key to connecting with others.

Trust is a two-way street

This goes both ways of course; virtual managers should be able to share their own challenges and be open enough with others to admit mistakes. It’s a two-way street, and if you build that communication, you’ll, in turn, become much more approachable and accessible – so much so that employees will feel safe enough to seek help. Communication and clarity, in this sense, is vital to building lasting and genuine professional relationships. This is especially true as we head into winter – the relationships built from the initial crisis will set the tone as we enter the next. If you continue to be consistent in your style, and transparent around expectations and performance, you’ll reap the benefits of a proactive workforce.

Accepting a healthy work-life balance

Since spring, we have learnt to accept and value that aspects of our family, friends and hobbies are much more entwined with day-to-day work than we may have realised. With work and home lives now under the same roof, it has allowed people to take a step back and spend time on the things that were perhaps lost to the corporate world. What virtual managers must do, is harness this change for the better.

Historically, interactions may have stuck to the tip of the iceberg topics that are mainly work-related. Now, the pandemic has unlocked a new door. There is permission; if not a responsibility to see more of the whole person. This isn’t about prying but about accepting that we all have priorities outside of work. It’s also about showing that we know and understand employees – this gives a sense of belonging and a feeling that their contribution matters. It may take a little longer at the start of a conversation to check in on a new puppy or how someone’s garden is coming along, but the performance benefits of building trust by putting people first will always pay back tenfold.

Ultimately, we build trust by building others up, showing loyalty and respect. This will continue to grow when relationships are transparent and without hidden agendas. To ensure high levels of productivity, virtual people management teams must be prepared to learn and improve, seek out and listen to genuine feedback. The road to successful virtual talent management is albeit a rocky and unprecedented one; yet putting people first and building trust, will be the initial step in bypassing the storm.

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