Maintaining trust in a remote workforce

remote workforce

Without trust, organisations and their teams are more vulnerable to the impact of the crisis. In the workplace, an absence of trust risks employees becoming withdrawn, disengaged and hypervigilant. As a consequence, anxiety and stress increase, putting staff on the fast-track to burnout, writes Stuart Taylor

The emergence of COVID-19 has brought with it significant changes to life as we once knew it. Today, we are experiencing new and unprecedented challenges, both in our personal and professional lives, and not least of all is the collective transition to remote working. Yet while the concept of a remote workforce is not new in itself, the circumstances forcing us into such an arrangement certainly are – and their implications are consequential.

When it comes to remote working, communication is key – not only for keeping teams up-to-date and promoting collaboration and productivity, but for fostering a sense of trust.

Globally, businesses are experiencing a period of considerable uncertainty and disruption. Leaders are faced with difficult decisions that many will never have faced before, leaving staff feeling anxious, hypervigilant and struggling to stay on course.

It’s an undesirable situation that is further compounded by the physical dislocation of leaders and their teams. Working remotely is, in and of itself, a challenge. Teams must identify new ways of working outside of their usual environment, as well as new ways of communicating and collaborating. Systems and technologies must be adjusted to enable work-flow to continue in this new arrangement, while the remote nature means workers require greater discipline and focus in the absence of their colleagues and leaders.

Beyond everyday business operations, remote working also has an impact on culture and morale. Despite the increase in video calls and instant messages, staff working remotely are likely to feel isolated and disconnected and will often struggle to remain motivated.

In the context of such an arrangement, and taking into account broader global events, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of trust in the workplace. Amidst terminations and pay cuts, a dispersed workforce, and a great deal of instability and uncertainty both in the workplace and the world at large, the concept of trust can feel increasingly elusive.

Yet trust is now more important than ever before. At a critical time when no business or leader can be certain of what’s around the corner, trust is vital for staying afloat. Trust enables us to remain cohesive and united, to work together towards a common goal. Importantly, a sense of trust allows us to rest assured that those around us, our colleagues and our leaders, will look out for our collective best interests despite the uncertainty of what might be ahead.

Without trust, organisations and their teams are more vulnerable to the impact of the crisis. In the workplace, an absence of trust risks employees becoming withdrawn, disengaged and hypervigilant. Communication and collaboration suffer, leading to a decrease in productivity. As a consequence, anxiety and stress increase, putting staff on the fast-track to burnout. In fact, research shows that high stress inhibits oxytocin production which negatively impacts trust, joy and engagement. Individuals who are engaged and feel connected to their work, colleagues and organisation maintain higher levels of oxytocin, resulting in higher levels of trust.

While the concept of a remote workforce is not new in itself, the circumstances forcing us into such an arrangement certainly are – and their implications are consequential.

Therefore, in order to navigate this challenging time, maintaining a sense of trust is crucial. Whilst remote working arrangements will no doubt add a layer of complexity to the matter, leaders can strengthen trust within their teams by practicing the following:

Communicate meaningfully, and often. When it comes to remote working, communication is key – not only for keeping teams up-to-date and promoting collaboration and productivity, but for fostering a sense of trust. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, where one’s intention can be made clearer through tone and expression, leaders must make an effort to communicate carefully and meaningfully with staff. Wherever possible communication should be visual, rather than audio or written. The presence of connection and empathy plays a huge role in maintaining trust, and this is best achieved through face-to-face communication, even if virtual. Aim to communicate often through video calls rather than phone calls or emails, as this will work to combat isolation and create a sense of cohesion.

Practice ‘Realistic Optimism’. Realistic Optimism is simply as it sounds – an approach to leadership that is grounded equally in both realism and optimism. Leaders who lead with realistic optimism are resilient in the face of adversity as they are equipped with the focus and clarity required to make an honest appraisal of the situation at hand, before acting with purpose and decisiveness. The realistic optimist understands the role of positivity and transparency in effective leadership, especially in difficult times, and will seek to maintain big-picture perspective, keeping the organisation’s purpose front of mind. Importantly, realistic optimism from a leader creates credible hope about the future – which, during times of dubious uncertainty, is the antidote to a fear-based culture.

Beyond everyday business operations, remote working also has an impact on culture and morale. Despite the increase in video calls and instant messages, staff working remotely are likely to feel isolated and disconnected and will often struggle to remain motivated.

Lead with compassion. Compassion is at the foundation of every high-trust organisation. In order to lead with compassion, leaders must understand the distinction between sympathy and empathy, and allow the latter to inform their approach to leadership. Especially now, leaders must strive to be sensitive to the perspectives of others. Leaders should recognise and acknowledge the unique challenges their teams may be facing, and the impact these challenges may have on their work. As a leader, work on developing emotional awareness of your own emotions as well as those of your team, and ensure staff feel heard and supported as both an employee and an individual.

Leadership in easy times is arguably easy, but in times of dislocation and change, leaders must be willing to adjust and adapt. The global crisis has transformed our world in a few short months, and it is impossible to determine how long it will last. What is clear is that in order to navigate these unpredictable and uncertain times, organisations will need to rely on their people – on unity, cohesion, and trust – more than ever.

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