- The effect of the pandemic on our working lives underscores the growing importance of trust.
- Successful remote working demands a greater level of trust, both in and between employees and employers.
- In the long-term, organizations that cultivate greater levels of trust will be better placed to thrive in this new era.
When we look back at the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, we will see not just the human and economic loss inflicted by the virus, but an important gain – a growing global awareness of the value of trust.
As companies coped this spring with plummeting demand, anxious employees and volatile costs, it became increasingly clear that leadership priority has shifted to maintaining the trust of all stakeholders. As with the financial crisis of 2008, survivors in the long run will tend to have the equivalent of a strong immune system; not only in their balance sheet, but in the level of trust they have been able to develop with their stakeholders.
Working together, apart
We found this spring that we had to learn afresh about building trust, from afar. The jury is still out on how to build and regain trust in a world where our collective health depends on how good we are at staying apart.
One of the things I have learnt in the past four months is the value of spending a little extra time with my colleagues and clients in addition to our business discussions – not with any specific agenda in mind, but just to see how they are getting on during this difficult time. While these short off-topic conversations are not the best substitute for in-person conversations, they have had one positive dividend: they have given me a much greater understanding of the lives of my colleagues and customers as individuals than I had before the pandemic.
Recently, for instance, while on a video call, a senior executive’s son walked into the frame, and so I asked him to come chat with us. A few months ago, this might have been slightly embarrassing for everyone, but now the three of us had a nice chat about everything, and nothing. Meeting my colleague’s son and adding that contextual information to my knowledge of his life enriched our working relationship.
With travel curtailed, I have not been able to meet with people as I usually do. To compensate, I have invested much more time in video calls. Adapting to this new style of management has been a challenge, because when it comes to working during a global pandemic, I am as much a freshman as the rest of the human race.
A time for patience
These windows into my colleagues’ lives have also reminded me of the challenges everyone faces today. Whether they are living alone or with small children, or with anxiety about their older relatives’ health, most people have a lot on their plate at the moment. For the at-home professional, their day job is one of many priorities. As managers and colleagues, we need to be patient with each other and allow people to set some of their own boundaries and timelines so that they are able to manage work and home life.
To do that will require a stronger commitment to building a greater level of trust in all our professional relationships, be they with colleagues, clients, investors, or regulators. Achieving this trust will demand an unprecedented level of transparency from all of us. Whether you are a manager being frank about next year’s uncertain prospects or a worker explaining that the project is going to be late because your mother isn’t well and needs your constant support, if we face our challenges together with candour and patience, we can still succeed.
Obviously the work still needs to be done, but we need to give everyone the flexibility they need to take care of all their responsibilities. Such flexibility means stepping back from micromanaging. Focusing on hours worked (and when) never did make a lot of sense as a way to manage people, but now, with a semi-remote workforce, it is no longer even practical. Instead of monitoring 100% of employees for the misbehaviour of 5%, we will need to find ways to manage that difficult 5%.
Managers today must focus more on outcomes, not on hours. Workers too will need to cut their managers some slack, recognizing that they are new to coping with the pandemic. Team members can reward their leaders’ flexibility by doing the best they can under the circumstances, and by stepping up for the team.
There is no “they”
In the end, the success of distributed work will depend on distributed trust. We can’t wait for 'them' to learn how to do things differently. There is no them; there is only us. From here on out, every top-performing enterprise will succeed only if we build a strong culture of personal responsibility. What this means is that 'they' don’t work at your firm – individuals do – and we can make changes by taking the initiative to drive them ourselves.
Now more than ever, top-performing cultures demand everybody’s best efforts and best ideas.