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How to build trust when everyone is working separately

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Mixed race businessman wearing business blue shirt on top and short sweatpants on bottom, showing other people on screen in formal fridays business outfits meeting online in bedroom at home.
Mixed race businessman wearing business blue shirt on top and short sweatpants on bottom, showing other people on screen in formal fridays business outfits meeting online in bedroom at home.

You’re trying to get on with a project but every few minutes, messages from your boss pop up on Slack (WORK) and kill your concentration. At first, you think your manager is trying to be supportive because prior to the pandemic, you worked together in the office. After a while, though, you get the impression that they are checking up on you, rather than checking you are OK.

A lack of trust is one of the key contributors to a toxic workplace. Often, it begins with managers and leaders and trickles down to the rest of the team, leading to problems with productivity, engagement, wellbeing and morale.

Unfortunately, research suggests mistrust is a major issue affecting workers, especially those working from home. In January, a Catalyst survey of more than 1,700 full-time employees in five countries in Europe, including the United Kingdom, found only 46% of employees in Europe report feeling “often or always” trusted at work.

Forty-three percent of women experience trust often or always at their organisations, compared with 49% of men, the results showed. Furthermore, only 36% of employees in non-management positions reported that they often or always experience being trusted at work.

This mistrust can manifest in a number of different ways. It might mean managers “checking up” on employees as they try to get on with their work, or even installing software on laptops in order to track what staff get up to during the day. Since March, an increasing number of businesses have turned to surveillance software to keep tabs on their staff.

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Employers may see spying on their staff as a safety measure to ensure people are productive when working remotely, but research shows a culture of distrust actually undermines productivity. So what can leaders do to build trust when employees are working from home?

Transparency is key, so all information should be shared openly with remote teams. Work schedules, project progress and task status should be available if needed. Keep people up-to- date with any changes to their work or the company, so people don’t feel like they’re in the dark with important developments.

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Demonstrating confidence in all team members is also a big part of building trust. Each person will have different skills, experiences and abilities, all of which work together cohesively if people are supported properly.

If someone appears to be struggling with their workload or has fallen behind, don’t make any assumptions. It may have nothing to do with their competence and likely isn’t an indication that they are slacking off - they may just be having a bad week. And in these challenging times, this isn’t unusual.

Managers should make sure workers know they are available if needed, but step back to let people get on with their work without distraction. For some people, this may mean fighting back an urge to control or micromanage employees.

“Trust and control can create a negative downward cycle. A high need for control is often connected with a higher level of anxiety and worry in a leader,” says Stuart Duff, head of development at business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola.

“Anxiety and control prevent the growth of trust, as someone who worries a lot will tend to be more wary and guarded in their behaviour. These in turn send out a signal that they do not trust others,” he adds.

“By imposing control, a leader may feel short-term reassurance that everything will turn out in the way they expect, but in the long-term will create wariness in relationships that will reduce openness, honesty and spontaneity – vital ingredients in developing trust.”

Perhaps most importantly, employers need to recognise that trust is essential for all workers, regardless of whether they work at home or in the office with colleagues.

“It should be concerning to leaders that over half of employees do not feel a sense of trust at work, particularly when we found that this motivates employees to do their best work,” said Allyson Zimmermann, Catalyst’s executive director of Europe, Middle East & Africa. “Trust needs to be shown in action, and we hope this data helps corporate leaders in Europe lead inclusively and promote trust as part of their organisational cultures.”

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