How does the leader of a team working from home know that his/her people are actually working? How do the employees demonstrate to the leader that they are productive?
That’s the dilemma companies as well as employees have been facing this year, and it has led to two problems:
- Leaders push and become pesky micromanagers.
- Employees work their fingers to the bone to prove productivity.
What’s the solution to these two very avoidable circumstances? Trust. When a leader fosters trust in a remote workforce, it thrives.
However, building trust within any team is no picnic. Building it within remote teams is truly an uphill task. It takes time. It takes patience. And it takes untangling through many challenges. But more than that, it requires techniques that support, engage, and embrace the workforce whilst fostering trust.
9 Techniques to Build Trust in a Remote Workforce
Research by Gartner says that businesses ‘with high levels of trust increase their average employee engagement by 76% over those with low levels of trust’.
But how do you foster trust when working from home makes everyone feel at an arm’s length? It takes simple gestures, better communication tools, and transparent practices.
1. Start Communicating More Frequently
When teams work within the same physical space, they frequently communicate, from tea breaks to meetings. This communication includes nonverbal clues too.
Remote workers lack both these forms of communication. An employee can’t get up and walk to a leader to clarify something. A leader can’t read body language through their open doors.
The only way to rectify this deficit position is to touch base frequently. As a leader, you’ll build more trust if you practice short cycle contact times. This means instead of scheduling a 30-minute meeting once every 20 days, communicate for 5 minutes 4 to 5 times a week.
Periodic and short bursts of contact build a sense of connection – as if you’re merely continuing a previous conversation. And that creates a foundation of trust.Periodic and short bursts of contact build a sense of connection – as if you’re merely continuing a previous conversation. And that creates a foundation of trust. Click To Tweet
2. Compensate for the Lack of Visuals
Remote working means you are not face-to-face with your team. And a few video conferences do not balance out the lack. So, every time you communicate with a member, ask explicitly how they are feeling, or if they are coping well with working from home.
The simple gesture of consistent check-ins will maintain trust on two fronts. One, it gives the leader insight on their workforce. Two, employees appreciate your personal interest in their lives, which creates confidence.
3. Make Socialising a Priority
Technology has made it simple to communicate with employees, irrespective of where they are. But when you’re touching base through a screen, the communication becomes transactional. And when the team leads focus only on work during these communications, trust begins to break.
To create a sense of unity and strengthen trust, leaders need to make socialising a priority. That means make your conversations less formal, at least on some mediums.
For instance, when you have a silly and fun interaction on a Slack channel, the next Zoom video chat is more effortless.
Also, set aside dedicated time for calls that are only about socialising. It could be Friday evening books clubs, a holiday get-together or just a daily 15-minute coffee break with the team – all virtual, of course. It will help lubricate work by prioritising de-stressing and some fun time with colleagues.
In a gist – a team lead must take a step back from the ‘all work, all the time’ attitude to cultivate trust.
4. Create a Buddy System for Onboarding
When working goes remote for almost a year (or more), it is inevitable that companies onboard new employees working remotely.
Integrating a new employee and building trust in them was already a challenging task when people worked from the same physical space. Now, it has become even more so.
One way to ease the transition and build confidence faster is to have a buddy system. Pair the new employee with a current team member. The existing member establishes a relationship with the new one, which can quicken the process of creating trust.
As a leader, your part is to communicate clear expectations to the new employee. For example, how is progress to be shared? Does it need to be every day or once a week? When you get progress reports, you’re more likely to trust the new employee. Further, it encourages the person to seek help when they are stuck.
It’s not just new employees with whom leaders should set expectations. It’s with everyone. And once you’ve communicated them, stick to them. It knits high trust when your remote workforce knows that you won’t switch goalposts suddenly.
5. Get FAQs Documented
The absence of answers sows wariness, and that breeds trust issues. But a leader can’t keep answering common questions every few minutes. Remote working is already pitted with distractions, quick one-minute queries from the entire workforce can add to it.
So, getting someone to write down FAQs helps. It avoids the quagmire of messages, emails and pings of “can I start and finish earlier tomorrow?”
Instead of the leader or manager spending time on answering such questions, a remote worker can rely on the FAQ document. Sometimes these common questions may include answers to queries that team members don’t even realise they had!
And because they have explicit answers, there is no scope for doubt, which promotes trust in the long run. Besides, the technique helps in managing the remote team more professionally.
6. Assign a Remote Leader
If FAQs don’t work, try assigning a remote leader. This person is in charge of picking collaboration tools, setting meeting protocols, defining a remote work company culture, and, of course, team-building exercises.
Setting a remote workforce leader gives team members a support system. Someone they can rely on for answers, assistance, and encouragement, which will reinforce trust.
7. Don’t Keep Time-In-Seat as a Metric
Trust in a remote workforce has a different face. When work still happened from office, a leader had to trust that their team utilised their set hours. Irrespective of whether they were 8 to 4 or 10 to 6.
Leaders cannot use the time spent in-seat as a metric of productivity in case of work from home. The scale they need to gauge it is output. Hold your employees accountable for the work they are assigned. If they accomplish it within deadlines, they’re productive.
When you pay attention to and value output and not how long they worked in a day, trust arises automatically.
8. Let Employees Set Their Goals
Even before remote work, 53% of employees considered a role that offered work-life balance more important, as per a popular study. Work from home requires further flexibility. So, now people prefer even more control over their work.
One way to offer this flexibility is by allowing employees to set their goal. It empowers your team by delivering a better work-life balance and a sense of ownership. This will enable teams to adapt better to work from home, and that maintains trust.
That this freedom and flexibility also imparts higher job satisfaction and therefore, higher quality decisions is an incidental benefit.
If you’re the leader of a team with a flat structure, then you’re already geared towards trusting teams. Other business leaders would fare better by revisiting hierarchies. Changing the entire business structure may not be a possibility, but it can be modified and tweaked to encourage more flexible working.
9. Always Default to Transparency
The golden rule to foster trust in the remote workforce is transparency. All your other gestures, practices, and techniques will fail if the leader doesn’t default to a transparent culture.
When your team is working in physical silos, it’s easy to forget to provide context to a colleague or withhold necessary information. Often it happens unwittingly. When such a circumstance arises, teammates are flummoxed, and surprises don’t evoke trust.
So, a leader’s goal should be to keep all relevant information out in the open. Send regular updates from the entire leadership team. If you have investors, share reports with financial updates. For major projects, CC people on emails to make everyone aware of it.
The objective is – go out of your way to be transparent, and you’ll prevent unpleasant surprises.
Trust is a two-way street.
Trust has to be mutual. Productive remote work happens when teams trust the leader and vice versa.
As a leader, you need to demonstrate your trustworthiness too. Most leaders fail at this. They don’t question their own part in fostering trust.
Is it your lack of confidence in the team that’s making you a micromanager? Could it be that questioning every move by every employee is more distracting than helping? Is your lack of trust slowing down performance?
Because the rest of the team imitates the actions of a leader, it is imperative that managers do their part in cultivating trust. You can do it by:
- Following through on the promises you make.
- Ensuring that the needs of the remote workforce are met.
- Recognising and appreciating employees for their contributions.
Leaders Can’t Force Trust
No leader can force trust in a remote team. So, thinking that rigidly steering your employees will nurture faith is ill-advised.
You don’t have the option to walk to the desk of a worker and check-in informally. When you do so in a virtual environment, it comes off as autocratic. You have to give employees leeway and fulfil your part of the deal.
But remember trust breaks down on the other end of the scale too – when a worker considers remote work a euphemism for relaxing. In those instances, set strong expectations with clear goals and boundaries along with timelines to cultivate trust.
Trust is a Prerequisite for a Remote Workforce
There was a point in time, about 8 to 10 years ago, when the likes of IBM, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard decided against remote work. The reason they cited was teams work better when they work together.
But the unspoken message was clear as day – there was a lack of trust, and for valid reasons. Virtual communication has a high potential for misunderstanding. The absence of face time erodes what little trust the teams have.
Given the necessity for flexible work options in the current times, leaders don’t have the choice of refusing remote work. It means fostering trust has become integral to organisational DNA.
Employees who don’t trust the leadership, show 1 in 12 chances of engagement. On the other hand, employees who do trust their leaders, have 1 in 2 chances of engaging, says a popular study.
Nurturing trust in remote teams may be pivotal but there is only one person that can influence it the most – the leader. Team managers and leaders are the variables who can instil confidence, and consequently increase productivity in employees working from far flung-off locations.
That said, there is no magic wand you can use. It takes a lot of different, but small steps to build a collaborative environment. Fortunately, every leader starts from an advantageous position – remote workers tend to work harder to prove they can be trusted.
As ever, we welcome commentary and debate. Share how you build trust in a remote workforce, or what more can companies do to foster trust?