Remote work is a matter of trust. But trust in whom?

While it has been two months since companies have been immersed in forced remote work, they are beginning to learn the lessons. Already that those who were experienced have discovered the difference between regular but non-permanent and permanent remote work, those who have been thrown into the deep end without prior training may have had a real shock.

Among the most frequent words we find “trust“. Indeed, anyone with experience of remote work will tell you that telework does not work without trust and the observation is logical enough to be accepted by all without any discussion. But is everyone talking about the same thing when it comes to trust? And does one not forget to take too one-dimensional a view of the concept of trust?

It may come as a surprise to learn that remote work does not change the fundamentals of work and teamwork. What does change, however, is that distance puts all of our work and management practices under strain, and when pushed to their limits, they reveal their limitations.

We should therefore not fall into the trap of saying “telework requires trust”, implying that we can do without it in the office. The truth is that “work requires trust, and even more so when you are at a distance”. There are bad practices that can be compensated for in the office but that can be recovered from a distance.

Having said that, let’s get back to this notion of trust and what we put into it.

In remote work, the manager must trust his team.

The first thing that comes to everyone’s mind is that a manager’s trust in his teams is essential to operate remotely. If this idea comes to mind so quickly it is certainly because culturally we know that this is not the case and that it poses a problem in the shift towards a result oriented culture that is essential in remote work. In any case, if the teams are so untrustworthy that you can’t trust them enough, you might wonder why they were recruited!

And that’s often where the discussion ends when we talk about trust in remote work. Yes, it’s a major stumbling block, but it’s not the only one, and there are others waiting for us who are no less interested.

The employee must trust his manager.

To work, trust must be bijective. A manager who does not have the trust of his teams does not go far either. It’s obvious in the office, but it’s just as obvious at a distance.

When one does not trust one’s manager, be it in his ability to make the team succeed or in his intellectual honesty, one tends, depending on the case, to want to do without him, to commit oneself less, to expose oneself less, not to take the slightest risk that can be blamed on him, not to make progress on subjects where one thinks one might be in difficulty.

From a distance, you can tell it’s worse. There are worse things than being close to someone you don’t trust: being far away from that person and out of eye contact. At that moment, this person becomes absent in the mind of the employee, who will have less scruples and less difficulty in entering either into an avoidance strategy or a straight shooter. And the more time is spent in remote work, the more the link becomes distended, the more the employee avoids, the more the quality of the work suffers.

Attention: when I talk about lack of confidence I am not even discussing the professional qualities of the manager but the perception that the employee who for many good or bad reasons will adopt behaviours that are beneficial for him but not for the company. Lack of confidence can come from the perception of skills, a lack of self-confidence, a lack of honesty or fairness or even simply from a feeling of fear inspired by the manager. Rightly or wrongly but as usual “perception is reality”.

The indispensable trust between colleagues

Here again in the office, trust between colleagues is indispensable. At a distance the lack of trust is redhibitory. In the office, most of the time, we are with our colleagues. We talk to each other, we adjust, and if a team member is “weaker” than the others we see him or her move forward (or not move forward) and we can compensate.

From a distance, the paradox is that everyone finds himself in the same position as his manager: without “visual” control, one has to trust and focus on the result. This often means waiting until everyone has finished and shared his or her share of the work before realizing that some have failed.

Working in this way, each one in his tunnel without visibility on what the others are doing (from a qualitative point of view), knowing or fearing that so-and-so will not be up to standard and that they will have to be compensated a posteriori, creates more or less the same behaviour as when one does not trust one’s manager, except that here there are no precautions and obligations linked to the hierarchical link. At the beginning you have failures in terms of delivery, then you have an employee excluded by his colleagues, sidelined, ostracized, stigmatized.

This can of course be avoided by increasing the number of moments of exchange where status updates are made, even short ones, on the progress of things. It is not by chance that Société Générale noticed that agile teams had less of a problem switching to widespread remote work. But here we don’t settle the question of trust, we limit the consequences of the reasons why we don’t trust them.

The tools: infrastructure for remote work

There is no remote work without tools. They are not by far a condition for success but can be a cause of failure. The tool is only the ball to play with and technology will never solve a problem that is human in the first place. But without them you can’t work remotely.

This takes the subject to another level: how much trust do employees have in the tools available to them?

A poorly scaled VPN that prevents them from connecting when they need to or slows connections down to an unacceptable level?

A tool that crashes regularly?

Videoconferencing that doesn’t work, or doesn’t have sufficient quality, or doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate all the participants in a meeting in the best conditions?

If they don’t trust them, whether it’s for questions of reliability, availability, user experience or even if they think they don’t know how to use them well, there will be two kinds of reaction.

  • Bypassing and using unofficial tools, under the radar, with what this means in terms of security, information integrity and even data retention.
  • Postponement of tasks involving the use of the tools in question.

It all starts with self-confidence

No matter what we say and no matter what we do to compensate, from a distance we are alone! Or in any case we are much more alone than when we are in the office and when we lack self-confidence, no matter what the reason and in what area, it is a real problem… This leads to a number of things.

First of all, the refusal of remote work so as not to put oneself in danger when one is aware of this limit. But when it is made obligatory by the circumstances, one must face up to it.

Secondly, there are difficulties in being heard and existing in the new organizational model that is implicitly being put in place. It is more difficult to exist in a videoconference than in a normal meeting, it is more difficult to go and ask a question or raise a problem when you have to go through the written word (chat or email) than informally at the bend in the corridor… A problem also shared by the shy, the introverted or those who are more comfortable speaking than writing.

Finally a difficulty to advance in solo. Working at a distance is more solitary than working with colleagues in a shared place. When you don’t have confidence in your ability to make the right choices, in your ability to succeed alone and it is more difficult to ask for help than when the colleague is 2m away, you start to lock yourself in, to “under deliver” and the trouble starts.

Businesses cannot build trust

It is a subject that is all the more complicated in that businesses have only indirect means of action over this concept of trust in the sense that they cannot impose it, cannot decree it overnight.

The only thing they can do is to create the conditions that will make that trust happen. This involves validating certain “soft skills” at the time of recruitment and developing them over time, setting up and practicing an adequate managerial model, well-established collaborative practices that place individuals in a comfort zone, implementing reliable tools…

Anyway, it takes time.

But if the question is not asked before setting up a remote work policy, there is a strong risk of a more than difficult start, or even worse.

Photo : Trust in.the workplace par Pictrider via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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