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Why remote work has eroded trust among colleagues
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(Credit: Alamy)
After a year of remote work, we now trust our colleagues less than before. Here's what we can do to rebuild those bridges.
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When the pandemic triggered mass workplace closures last spring, many companies were unprepared for what turned into an open-ended remote-work arrangement. For some, the extraordinary situation initially prompted a heightened sense of goodwill as workers juggled the demands of family and fine-tuned home-office setups. Yet as we now pass the one-year mark of virtual work, the shaky foundation of many company cultures is cracking to reveal a lack of trust among remote managers and employees.

Under better circumstances, trust begets trust; at the moment, experts are finding that the reverse is true. Without in-person interactions to bolster our professional relationships, there’s more room to make negative – often unfounded – assumptions about our colleagues’ behaviours. And, many supervisors haven’t been trained to manage a team remotely, causing them to fall into the trap of over-monitoring employees, which tends to backfire. All these factors are creating a cycle of virtual workplace distrust that’s exacerbated by pandemic fatigue and the struggle to sustain our mental health amid an extended period of uncertainty.

The dearth of trust isn’t something that will be magically fixed once the pandemic subsides, especially as businesses are considering adopting new models, from hybrid systems to a different kind of work week. The consequences of a culture of distrust are significant – including diminished productivity, innovation and motivation. But there are steps we can take to effectively build and repair trust, even from afar.

Distance breeds distrust

Before the pandemic, the seeds of trust were often planted at work without us even realising it – a greeting in the elevator, post-meeting small talk, complimenting a colleague’s haircut.

“Trust is built by spending time together, not necessarily around work-related tasks,” says Scott Schieman, chair of the department of sociology at the University of Toronto’s St George campus. “We form and sustain social bonds this way, expressing verbal and nonverbal communication in ways that convey understanding, empathy and shared concern. There’s no way endless Zoom calls can replace the depth and quality of in-person human interaction.”

Although those interactions in passing don't seem like much, they actually help to build trust among colleagues – and we're sorely missing them now (Credit: Alamy)

Although those interactions in passing don't seem like much, they actually help to build trust among colleagues – and we're sorely missing them now (Credit: Alamy)

Not only is it harder to build strong connections through video and audio calls, email and instant messages, but misunderstandings are likelier to arise from these mediums due to their limitations. “You might see a supervisor’s or team member’s facial expression on a Zoom meeting and misinterpret or appraise it in a negative way,” says Schieman. “You might be completely misreading it – maybe their kid was in the background doing something that annoyed them. In a physical shared space, you could better read those cues and clear them up.”

When we don’t have all the context about a colleague’s behaviour, we’re prone to credit their actions or words to their character, rather than a situation beyond their control – a well-established phenomenon in social psychology known as fundamental attribution error, which has taken on new weight in an era of virtual interactions.

“If you’re late for a meeting while working from home, it’s because your broadband wasn’t working, but if anyone else misses a meeting, you attribute it to their character,” says Heidi K Gardner, faculty chair of Harvard Law School’s Accelerated Leadership Program and author of Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos. Gardner, who has studied trust attitudes among knowledge workers, adds: “[You think it must be] because that co-worker is lazy, doesn’t care about the work or isn’t holding up their end of the bargain. When we’re working separately, you can only see your own circumstances and excuse your behaviours but impugn others’ character when something goes wrong for them.”

If you’re late for a meeting while working from home, it’s because your broadband wasn’t working, but if anyone else misses a meeting, you attribute it to their character – Heidi K Gardner

When a manager makes a negative assumption about an employee’s behaviour and decides to supervise them more closely as a result, it can cause psychological distress, which in turn can harm performance. “Monitoring is interpreted by employees as not being trusted to do their work, impinging on their sense of control over their work and their trust of their manager and organisation as a whole,” says Caroline Knight, research fellow at Curtin University’s Future of Work Institute in Perth, Australia, who is leading an ongoing study on the impact of Covid-19 on work, wellbeing and performance.

“When leaders start to monitor, employees are less motivated and feel less responsible for their work,” adds Anita Keller, assistant professor of behavioural and social sciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who is collaborating with Knight on the study. The increased autonomy that comes with working remotely can be a boon to productivity and morale, she explains, but only if supervisors trust their team to perform, “otherwise there are limited or no benefits for employees and organisations”.

Building relationships remotely

In order to shore up trust, it’s helpful to realise that trust building isn’t a one-size-fits-all process.

Gardner explains that there are two main types of trust: competence trust, which relates to pure professional ability; and interpersonal trust, which is based on human connection and integrity. “If you deliver quality work on time but are a jerk, that undermines personal trust,” says Gardner. “People need to send strong, clear, reliable signals of trustworthiness in both these dimensions.”

There are also two different types of trust personalities: automatic trusters, who give the benefit of the doubt until trust is broken; and evidence-based trusters, who tend not to trust until they’ve been given adequate reason to do so. “If you don’t know which type a co-worker is, the safer bet is to assume they’re evidence-based,” suggests Gardner. Providing more communication and information than necessary to a new colleague will cover your bases until trust is established.

If you don't know otherwise, assume your colleagues are 'evidence-based trusters', and go out of your way to give them a reason to trust you (Credit: Alamy)

If you don't know otherwise, assume your colleagues are 'evidence-based trusters', and go out of your way to give them a reason to trust you (Credit: Alamy)

While it helps to raise awareness of how trust works, companies must also play their part, says Bhushan Sethi, a principal and joint global leader in PwC’s New York-based People & Organisation practice, where he works with employees across 150 countries to shape culture-led change. “To build real trust, firms will need to upskill in inclusive leadership, especially in a remote environment, where people are likely to feel more disconnected,” says Sethi. “Leaders need to make people feel included, make sure their ideas are heard and empathise when they’re stressed, anxious or burned out.”

Likewise, Knight and Keller emphasise the importance of empathy in promoting trust. Their research showed that managers who show employees support and appreciation will foster more trust, and be better trusted in return. In service of its mission to enhance the experience and value of work, The Future of Work Institute has created free downloadable resources – from time management tips to concrete communication strategies – to support managers and workers in a flexible work world.

But Knight says companies should also create their own resources. “Organisations could invest in training that focuses on education around the benefits of remote working, how to devolve autonomy of workers and how to manage by results,” she says. “This means not focusing on the number of working hours or whether they respond to messages instantly, but whether the broader goals of the job are being met.”

‘I trust you’

All of these tactics can help workers make strides to rebuild a culture of trust – but the reality is that it’s inevitable that trust will still occasionally be broken. So, if you’ve missed a deadline or otherwise fallen short, don’t gloss over it – you have to own up to it before you can rebuild trust. “It’s essential to admit your mistakes, as that makes you vulnerable,” says Gardner. “When you do that, you’re implicitly saying, ‘I trust you not to take advantage of me’.”

There are also two different types of trust personalities: automatic trusters and evidence-based trusters

When trust is breached from the top down, as when supervisors monitor employees’ every move, workers can try stepping up communication to assuage anxiety. “Proactively inform your supervisor how things are going, what you have accomplished and where things are difficult,” says Keller. “It’s also worth negotiating what performance is expected and how that is assessed.”

Still feeling stifled? Keller suggests explaining to your boss that although you’re aware that some monitoring is important, doing so excessively is counterproductive to your morale and performance. As a last resort, consulting a third-party supervisor or HR representative may help. Regardless of the cause, any time trust is diminished, the goal is to reset the dynamic and cultivate good faith moving forward.

Although trust-building may seem like a soft skill in comparison to more technical or analytical ones, it’s a vital piece of a healthy work culture – and one that’s taken a big hit during the pandemic. Ultimately, our ability to prioritise and develop trust with colleagues will have a direct and immediate impact on the quality of our work – and the long-term outlook of our careers.