When the pandemic suddenly sent employees home in the spring of 2020 and remote working became the default, many teams relied on pure adrenaline and intense pressure for a while to make it work.
However, as the pandemic progressed, some teams became frustrated and anxious, and trust levels between employees and management fell, particularly for organisations insufficiently prepared to operate remotely.
That's when companies began approaching Kevin Eikenberry, a leadership and remote-work consultant based in Indianapolis, to figure out a better way to improve their remote-working regimes. Eikenberry worked with organisational leaders to salvage that lost trust by encouraging them to take a timeout, bring the team together to figure out what wasn't working, and collaboratively make a plan to move forward.
"The first thing these leaders did was to highlight the situation, the second thing was let everyone know they care enough to talk about it, and third, they trusted everyone to share their ideas rather than just bringing them a plan," Eikenberry said. "By figuring it out together as a team, they were more likely to be committed to the plan, improving the chances that not only would communication improve, but trust would grow back."
As remote work becomes a more permanent feature of the workplace, finance professionals will need to trust their teams to deliver, while assuring their managers they can be trusted to perform in a remote environment.
If you're struggling to build trust through your computer screen, consider implementing these five tips for developing and maintaining trust while working remotely.
Trust others to gain trust. It's easy to trust your team when you can see them working right next to you, but remote work requires a bit of faith. Perhaps one of the best ways to create a trusting environment is by first demonstrating to your team that you trust them.
"Trust is both a noun and a verb — the more of the verb we do, the more of the noun we get," Eikenberry said. "If I'm a leader and I want to build more trust in my team, I need to start showing through my actions that I trust them. Because when you know that I trust you, what do you want to do? You want to live up to that."
As long as your team is doing the work and meeting deadlines, try not to get caught up in the specifics of when they log in and out every day or how they tackle the task at hand. Avoid micromanaging and give your team the chance to reward your trust by assigning them projects that challenge them and play to their strengths.
"You need to communicate with your people as if they're mature professionals," said Steven Sacks, CPA, CGMA, director at Global Alliance Advisory Services, based in Mahwah, New Jersey. "I know of some organisations that install an application on their people's laptops that can tell when they've been away from their keyboards for too long, and that's not the type of environment you want to have."
Any attempt at employee surveillance is sure to be gamed anyway, argued Harriet Molyneaux, managing director at research consultancy HSM Advisory, based in London, so it's better to use positive rather than negative motivators.
Align your team's purpose and motives. Trust should come naturally if everyone on the team has a common purpose and the motivation to do good work. Eikenberry encourages teams to form a strong "trust triangle", which includes the three corners of common purpose, competence, and motives.
"Each of those three plays a role in how much we trust others," he said. "If we don't know what someone's motives are, then we start to assume the worst. And if our intentions and motives are altruistic and for the best interest of the team, then we need to make sure people see it that way."
When we see people face-to-face, it can be easier to assess and convey intentions, Eikenberry explained, so in a remote environment we may need to make a point of vocalising our motives, exhibiting competence, and consistently clarifying the team's common purpose.
Overcommunicate and use the right medium for your message. Communication breakdowns can be detrimental to trust, especially in remote environments. Emails are often misconstrued, phone calls are void of body language, and even video calls can be hindered by time delays and frozen screens.
"We need to use the right tool for the right communication task, which means selecting the medium that has the best chance of getting my message received, not the one I like the most," Eikenberry said.
For example, if your message seems to be getting lost in an email chain, it might be time to pick up the phone. And if the conversation could benefit from body language and facial expressions, try hopping on a video call.
Consider creating agreements across the team about how you're going to communicate with one another and stick to them for consistency. And if you're falling behind on a project or priorities have changed, immediately notify anyone who might be affected by the delay so they can make adjustments. Overcommunicating, especially when working on a time-sensitive project, will go a long way towards cementing trust with colleagues.
Amplify your human skills. Soft or "human" skills were important prior to the pandemic and the resulting shift to remote work, but they are essential now, according to Dermot Dennehy, CEO of Manage Remote Teams, which is based in London and operates in the UK, EU, and US. He argued that critical listening, empathy, transparency, and accountability are now crucial for people at all levels of organisations.
"When someone was crying in the corner of the office, you could see there was an issue, and you might go and ask what's wrong," he said. "Now you've got to actually be able to interpret when there's an issue with someone, and you have to be able to empathise with them."
In addition to building trust, Dennehy's training concentrates on people and culture, productivity and motivation, and mental health, because he believes they're all interdependent. For example, if you have a team member with poor mental health and there are low levels of trust, then that person is never going to open up about issues they might run into. Or if you have someone who is not being very productive, but you don't make an effort to figure out what's behind that dip in output, you might overlook contributing factors like a partner who just lost their job or a sudden illness in the family.
Molyneaux pointed out that there can actually be more opportunities to practise empathy and exhibit authenticity in a remote environment because colleagues can get a glimpse into your home and have a chance to meet the people in your life. She agreed that employee wellbeing is a core component of building trust, and recommended managers consider the unique struggles of remote work.
"The lack of boundary between home and work can make for a very challenging headspace," she said. "Managers need to have a real finger on the pulse of the wellbeing of their team and help them show up, be their best, and make the right choices so you can have trust with them."
In order to encourage team members to prioritise their wellbeing, Molyneaux recommended leaders vocalise when and how they're taking time for themselves (maybe they take a long lunch break or leave early to spend time with family) and then prompt others to do the same.
Avoid blame culture. If you notice team members are quick to blame others for failures, that's a sign that trust levels are low.
"There was a company I worked with where the trust was completely eroded," Dennehy said. "The manager was blaming the staff, the staff would blame the manager, and the staff would blame one another. There was an inability to ask for help, a lack of faith in leadership, and as a result, people were leaving."
Dennehy said managers and leaders need to create an environment with psychological safety in which team members feel comfortable approaching them with problems without fear of penalty. And when issues do arise or the organisation wants to reset its values, Molyneaux recommended leaders invite everyone involved to be part of the solution.
For example, Molyneaux and her team at HSM recently worked with HSBC to refresh their values in a virtual environment, and the bank decided to ask all 35,000 employees for feedback to make sure the reset properly reflected the entire organisation.
"They showed a lot of trust in their people by creating an open, non-anonymous forum with 35,000 people from 146 different countries," she said. "In that way, people felt trusted and trustworthy because they were able to contribute towards the future of the organisation."
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.