The Hybrid Workplace and the Trust Challenge



I’ve been thinking about the concept of trust.

Being the HR enthusiast that I am, I have pondered and focused on the idea of trust and mistrust when it comes to the workplace. What makes a trusting environment, and how can feelings of trust permeate through company cultures often wrought with staunch traditions and rigidity?

What can HR do to help? The concept of trust and exchange relationships at work in their many forms needs to be on our HR radar moving forward.

There’s something to be said for trusting someone—or something—when you can physically see and tangibly reach out and shake hands or touch a physical object. Video conferencing has become a staple of work and life outside of work too, but nothing really compares to being there with people—wherever ‘there’ might be, collaborating and brainstorming; laughing and just interacting. We used to do this in conference rooms, common areas, coffee shops, and other places where people would gather.

Remember those days? Yeah, I miss them too.

Of course, one area that managers and employees alike have had to pivot this past year was that they were no longer physically able to see each other in most—if not all, daily interactions. For some, that’s been difficult from a trust perspective.

Why might that be?

Person to person interaction is a pillar of trust. As humans, we have become conditioned to respond and react based on visual cues, vocal cadence, eye contact, mannerisms, and body language in general. In fact, oftentimes those things are infectious and have a major impact on the energy of the environment in which we find ourselves.

I’m sure you can think of people in your life that bring sparks of energy when they enter a room, whether that be at work or elsewhere. Conversely, you may also know people who tend to shed an aura of negative energy when they enter a room.

So, what happens now that so much in-person contact has gone away, or at the very least, has been diminished? I ask this not from the perspective that remote work and work flexibility are merely outcomes of the global pandemic; rather I think it is widely accepted that these novel work arrangements are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

The thing is, they are now happening on a much wider scale, transcending industries and jobs. Many managers who were used to managing in person have had to quickly adapt to and sustain new managerial practices for workers in virtual environments.

But, have we prepared them to do so not just from a performance management perspective, but from a trust perspective as well?

We watched work transform in what feels like overnight, but really it was a longer process. This transformation was years of anticipated workplace evolution happening in just a few months. In essence, we’ve all experienced the future of work being accelerated. In relation to the concept of trust in the workplace in our new environment, the question becomes: how do we accelerate along with it? What behaviors, outcomes, and expectations must HR professionals change in our departments, and in the minds and actions of our people managers and employees in order to keep them aligned with the extensive changes, thus creating and maintaining a culture of trust?

How do we foster an environment of trust when we cannot always see each other?

The way these questions are answered will certainly depend upon numerous unique factors within companies. Whether companies decide to permanently go fully remote, or have hybrid options upon returning to work, differences will be apparent. I ask many of these questions knowing that there are no easy answers, and there is no one answer that will suit all workplaces. Further, companies that have cultures built on a foundation of trust prior to the pandemic will have an easier time bringing trust into a virtual environment. 

I recognize that I am not breaking any new ground when it comes to discussing the concept of trust in the office. It’s a theme that is synonymous with nearly all successful human resources and people operations within a workplace. I think about the concept of trust both from the employee and the employer perspective. While the two parties in the employment relationship may have different needs when it comes to trust in the workplace, it’s safe to say that trust as a relational construct permeates through and affects more than we realize, and its impact at work cannot be diminished.

And there’s data to back up the importance of trust in work environments—specifically remote work environments. A recent study of nearly 4,000 employees and business leaders in 11 countries conducted by The Workforce Institute at UKG found that 55 percent of managers and employees trust people more in a physical environment than a virtual one. To me, that’s a real problem, considering that remote work is not going away. In fact, it will only become more widespread and accepted as time goes on.

So, what exactly does this mean for businesses, for managers, and for HR? How can HR leaders help people managers trust their employees that are working virtually?

I think it starts with being clear about what trust means to your organization. It’s also vital to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to that definition. Does trust in your company mean that employees will be available and working from 9am-5pm every day? Does trust mean that if you are given a project deadline, you will meet that deadline on time, and with a quality work output? Does trust mean that employees and managers can come to HR with any concern, without fear of retaliation for speaking out? Or maybe trust means that employees feel no hesitation with taking days off when they are feeling burnt out, or just need a break.

I’d venture to say that trust in its many forms is the foundation for everything else at work, and it can make or break the success of individuals and the company. A healthy workplace and a positive employee experience depend on a trusting environment. Those positive experiences have a trickle-down effect on reducing turnover, increasing productivity, and attracting top talent to an organization. Without the stability of trust within the exchange relationship between employer and employee, that relationship will likely crumble.

The way employers treat employees during times of crisis will ultimately shape how companies are viewed when things settle down both from an internal and external perspective. Where does your organization stand when it comes to trust? I look forward to exploring this topic at length in the New Year ahead.


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