Remotely happy | Building confidence and trust from a distance

By in Opinion

Do you trust your employees to work well from home?

Trust is more important than ever as businesses adapt to remote working, socially distanced meetings and travel restrictions. How your organisation responds to these changing work patterns will impact employee satisfaction, wellbeing and performance. So, what can you do to embed trust and instil confidence when so many people are working remotely and social contact is often limited to phone and video calls? Here, we look at the main trust and confidence issues among staff – and how to overcome these issues – with examples from Praxity member firms in Australia and the US.

Trust among staff

Working remotely and more flexibly during the pandemic has placed new pressures on employees and managers, many of whom were forced to make the transition in a hurry, without adequate support or training. Globally, remote employees face significant challenges, including creating a suitable workspace, minimising noise and disruption, caring for loved ones during the pandemic, and dealing with mental health issues such as feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Any one of these challenges can lead to a drop in performance levels, which may bring into question the level of trust between different members of staff. It comes as no surprise that 19% of the global workforce feel their productivity and workload is being misunderstood by their employers during the pandemic, according to research by Peakon. Managers and supervisors face exactly the same remote working challenges. Nevertheless, some can find it hard to trust their employees to work from home, especially in countries where flexible working is less embedded in company culture, or in organisations where remote working is a totally new concept. In the worst scenarios, these same managers and supervisors may not be trusted by their bosses to work effectively when at home, reinforcing negative beliefs about flexible working in general. This can create “a negative spiral in which manager mistrust leads to micromanagement which then leads to drops in employee motivation, further impairing productivity”, according to new research published in Harvard Business Review (HBR). Preliminary findings from a survey conducted by the Centre for Transformative Work Design during the pandemic reveal:

  • 40% of supervisors and managers expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely;
  • 38% of managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office;
  • 41% of managers said they were sceptical remote workers could stay motivated in the long term;
  • 56% of workers reporting high levels of close monitoring said they experienced greater work-homelife conflict.

Support and education

Micromanagement is not the answer, according to the Centre for Transformative Work Design. They urge companies to be more willing to adapt to employees’ individual circumstances. They suggest organisations should focus on providing greater support for staff wellbeing, more leave, and more training on remote working challenges. This includes educating managers about the benefits of remote working and how to effectively delegate and empower people by “checking in on” rather than “checking up on” employees. Above all, they call on managers to manage by results, being mindful of the challenges remote employees face in balancing work and homelife.

“…you need to trust your employees are doing the right thing in working from home and give them a level of authority that’s even above what you would normally…”

Greg Travers, Director of Tax Services at Australian accounting firm William Buck, says it’s about giving remote workers more responsibility. He explains: “As a leader, I feel you need to trust your employees are doing the right thing in working from home and give them a level of authority that’s even above what you would normally, which I’ve found has been widely reciprocated. I also think it’s important to focus on results rather than input. At no point am I worried when staff are starting, and finishing work each day if they’re doing quality work and getting results. “My role within the team has changed quite significantly both as an outcome of my team shifting to remote work, and as a driver of enhanced processes. For example, giving my team more responsibility and control over certain work has freed my time up to provide support and assistance where it’s required. I now have a lot more availability to help than I did prior to coronavirus and remote working.”

Check-ins

Trusting and supporting employees in this way requires clear communication channels so everyone is aware of what’s expected and can raise any issues. Greg continues: “Initially, we had regular interactions and daily team meetings. We even set up a support matrix so that each person had several others in the team they could check in with. The purpose was to replicate that support structure that exists in-office. However, as time went by, people became comfortable managing their time and workload and these more formal catchups weren’t as necessary.” Building trust remotely has been easier for organisations that had already embraced flexible working and digital transformation prior to the pandemic.

Flexible culture

Wenli Wang, Partner in charge of the San Francisco office at US accounting firm Moss Adams, says an established flexible working culture and trusting employees to work from home meant the shift to 100% home working during lockdown at Moss Adams was “amazingly smooth” all things considered. She explains: “We had some slight delays the first week or two due to equipment and technology issues, but otherwise, we really did not skip a beat. We have maintained at a relatively high level of efficiency and productivity since then. “…traditional strategies to gain and maintain our teams’ trust need to be adjusted” “Trusting our team has been a given on the leadership side. We encourage the team to have flexible schedules because of various family situations they may have to deal with, such as assisting a school-age child with lessons during the day, inserting a morning run in between meetings, or running to the grocery store during the working day to avoid the crowd. “With Covid-19, a lot of the traditional strategies to gain and maintain our teams’ trust need to be adjusted. As leaders, we have learned to be much more intentional in this area. We won’t run into each other in the kitchen to talk about our weekends or our recent trips. Video calls can be exhausting. How to stay connected with our teams and have their trust in us is an issue that constantly stays on our mind.”

Conversations with substance

Apart from making sure the logistical side of working home is well taken care of, leaders at Moss Adams do regular check-in calls, ask open ended questions, and have “conversations with substance”. Wenli explains: “When I ask ‘how are you doing’, I don’t stop with an ‘I am doing fine’ answer. I try to dig deeper to find out what ‘fine’ means. Is it truly fine? We encourage the teams to share with us their challenges of working remotely and we take customized approaches to solve their individual problems. We have divided the teams into smaller groups and have organized on-line happy hours, games, and ‘fireside’ chats. We take notes of suggestions and do our best to take actions on them. This definitely is a work in progress. We continue looking for better strategies and have an open mind so we keep improving in this area!

By showing empathy and support for employees, backed by training, organisations will be better placed to achieve a culture of trust, better performance, stronger relationships and, above all, happier people.

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