In 2019, only 12 percent of UK workers reported working from home at least part of the work week. By 2023, 40 percent worked home at least part of the time. And those who were high earners or had degrees were most likely to work from home part of the time. For executive teams who are still learning how to manage a part remote workforce, there is an ongoing challenge to either draw workers back to the office or meet them where they are. If we accept that hybrid work (and fully remote work, to a lesser degree) is here to stay, how do leadership teams reinvent the connections and trust we naturally built in the office?
Connecting with colleagues at work is what builds trust. And trust is key to success.
Trust in the workplace is an integral part of success at a company, from better results within teams, to increased profitability at the organisational level. Trust results in less stress at work, higher productivity and less burnout, amongst other things. We see this play out in the smallest of ways as well as in significant moments. We don’t waste time wondering why a colleague was late for a meeting if we trust that they are a hard worker with good judgement. Instead, we simply assume they had another call run late or had to attend to a client. In exchange, we continue to give them important roles and let them make their own decisions. And they respond in turn by feeling motivated, working harder, and producing more.
It all sounds so simple and effortless, but it’s not. We notice the challenges when the trust isn’t there. This can be for very simple and logical reasons, for example, a team member is new and we simply don’t know them well enough for trust to be earned. And that’s true on both sides of the equation. A new employee is less likely to share with their manager that they are running late every day because they are caring for an aging parent — or even that they just moved to town and keep underestimating the traffic. And without a proven track record, that manager has no reason to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Quite simply, trust is earned on all sides. Traditionally, however, our day in day out interactions with others gave us informal opportunities to build those relationships.
How do you build this trust in the workplace when we’re not even in the workplace?
It is much harder to build trust in online work environments, because so much of trust comes in the in-between moments. By that, I mean the small conversations — or shared laughs or somber pauses — that are not about the work directly. A lot of what connects us is mostly unsaid. It’s much easier to get the full set of what is happening with someone when you can read body language in person as opposed to through a Zoom call. When you extend that to a team dynamic, it’s even more difficult for people to read each other. In order to bond as a team you need to build a familiarity and shared sense of purpose. Everyone doesn’t have to be equally connected. Some individuals will forge closer relationships than others. But this is why the total is greater than the sum of the parts. And that is also why bonding over virtual tools is so much more difficult.
Trust comes from the shared small moments more than the larger ones. It can come from the smallest of shared values like choosing to live in the same neighbourhood or rooting for the same football team. But at the workplace, we reveal those smaller points outside of our formal meetings. But we no longer (or less frequently) have the opportunity to make small talk as we head down the corridor between meetings. We rarely connect with whomever is in the conference room early while we wait for others to gather. We get on a Zoom call at 9:59 and we’re off at 11:01 because we’re already late for the next call.
Rebuild the in-between spaces. So, we must rebuild room for in-between spaces. That could mean intentionally setting the first five to ten minutes after everyone gets on the call to go around the room and get a simple update about how everyone’s weekend was. Note that I said after everyone gets on, not the first five to ten minutes the call was scheduled: people will try to get on late to avoid this. Why? Because it’s going to be annoying and feel artificial, at least at first. And it is. It’s unlikely that human interaction which was developed and perfected for the first 10,000 years through in-person interactions is going to get the same emotional payoff over a video call. And yet, we must try.
Other equally imperfect ways to connect — have a virtual happy hour at the end of a Friday. You can’t make it compulsory or it really will feel like forced fun. But perhaps you can send a bottle of wine to everyone on a small team, or let them expense back their own (reasonably priced) bottle if they join. It isn’t the same as a quick one down the pub in person. It can’t be. But it can create the environment where we speak about the cinema or football or weather or whatever we used to talk about before we all went online. As this Forbes article notes, it’s important to not only see your team member as list of tasks, but a person with their own personal and professional goals. “Focus on the person — not their tasks — and building rapport. Especially during times of crisis and high uncertainty, it’s imperative to show concern for others rather than push for results.”
We can build trust among teams, without being in the same rooms. But it will take work.
I recognise that executive teams are looking for solutions that are more familiar – trying to bring teams back in with better offices and free lunches or simple mandates that employees must be in the office. The reality is that the most sought-after talent will likely find employers who are willing to accommodate remote or part remote schedules. You can meet workers where they are – in part remote environments – and find that connections are still built. And it may be that the connection itself is what drives people back into the office. Executive teams have understandably had the instinct is to pull people back into the workplace, in order to recreate those organic moments. However, what might be more realistic (and effective) is to help teams reconnect where they are. And once the relationships are better formed, employees may more naturally want to meet in person from time to time. But even if we don’t bring back the same in-person interactions, that doesn’t mean we can’t build trust.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.