Colin Hughes, Head of the Graduate Business School, Technological University Dublin and Mark NK Saunders, Professor of Business Research Methods, Birmingham Business School, discuss the thorny issue of maintaining trust within a virtual workspace.
With organisations responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government recently ‘ordering’ people to stay at home to avoid unnecessary social contact, the number of people working from home has rapidly increased, many for the first time.
Unsurprisingly, this change in working style has been accompanied by numerous ‘how-to’ guides and advice on social media. Many of these guides offer excellent insight into working effectively by using technology, managing one’s day effectively, and dealing with the isolation associated with home-working.
It is also crucial to consider the impact of home-working on relationships with colleagues and, in particular, on trust between team members and between employees and their managers. This is important as what trust is to work relationships is what oil is to an engine. Not only is it necessary for such relationships to function, but it is also essential if they are to work well. Trust between work colleagues has three distinct but crucial components; when deciding to trust, an individual needs to be sure the other person has:
- the ability or professional competence to undertake the tasks required;
- integrity and is reliable, undertaking these tasks to the standards set while acting ethically;
- a demonstrable concern for the wellbeing of others, in other words, benevolence.
When work relationships move into new, often unknown, scenarios, such as home-working in the current ‘lockdown’, the need for trust becomes even greater. Fortunately, our research shows that employees who have already worked together and started to build a trusting relationship face-to-face are likely to be able to maintain and develop this further in virtual workspaces.
Our research highlights a number of actions that can maintain and further develop trust between employees when working remotely. These include:
- Being open in your communication
Employees and managers need to communicate with honesty and transparency. Inevitably, with their employees working from home, managers will have far less communication than if they were in their usual workplace. It is therefore crucial that they continue to communicate regularly about both the positive aspects and the challenges being faced. This is especially important early on when employees are getting to grips with working from home.
By communicating openly, support can be provided to help employees deal with any minor issues they are facing before they become bigger. Similarly, employees appreciate leaders who communicate with integrity, particularly those who are open and honest regarding organisational contingencies relating to COVID-19.
- Communicating clearly and precisely
Trust can be heavily influenced by how people perform their tasks against expectations of them. With the move to home working, all employees need to know precisely what is expected of them so that they can make the best use of their abilities. Virtual communication regarding this is often challenging. Where possible video or telephone conversations supported by emails are preferable to avoid any miscommunication.
- Ensuring availability and visibility
Availability of colleagues and managers is crucial to employees who will need ongoing support. Employees need to feel as if their manager and team are ‘down the (albeit virtual) corridor’ or ‘sitting at the (virtual) desk next to them’. Colleagues and managers can leverage a variety of online communication methods to do this, such as using video calls for longer chats and messaging apps for quick queries and just checking in. The use of the camera on calls helps to maintain a sense of connection.
- Allowing time to chat about non-work-related issues
In using online media, it is important to communicate beyond the agenda and maintain the personal aspects of working life. Time should be set aside to chat about non-work related issues, as would be the case in an office, as this will help to maintain the connection.
- Remembering that employees and managers are people first
In times of crisis, it is easy to forget the human element. This is a stressful time for all employees, and it is important that managers and employees continue to check in on each other and offer real support during this challenging time. Our research has shown that employees trust managers who demonstrate an ’employee-centric’ leadership style, supporting the employee both personally and professionally. Right now is the perfect time to show such care and concern.
In summary, how we work remotely over the coming months will have a significant and lasting impact on trust in the workspace. Our research shows actions demonstrating integrity, such as open, clear and precise communication, and being present will help to maintain and build trust. Furthermore, as employees get to grips with home working, while also dealing with the impact of a global pandemic, benevolent actions such as allowing time for non-work issues and demonstrating real care and concern will reinforce trust. Invariably, workplaces that continue to build trust will perform better in these new virtual workspaces.