The Remote Playbook is a regular column for people who manage and oversee remote teams. As a remote worker, CIO Dive's Roberto Torres can help shed light on the issues and trends impacting the management relationship. Want to read more on a topic? Email him directly at [email protected].
A trend is emerging on collaboration platforms across the globe: discussing how teammates are faring amid the pandemic.
In his team's group chat, Bhushan Sethi, global people and organization co-leader at PwC, has noticed an uptick in levity.
In the before times, the team of 50 turned to the chat regularly, but mostly to look for collaborative responses to work-related questions. Now, the spirit of the chat has changed, as the team swaps quarantine life stories or pictures of how they're managing to stay fit amid the lockdown.
"I know it sounds a little trite and obvious," Sethi said. "But these small things matter in terms of your team feeling connected and engaged."
Some might perceive the discussions on a collaboration platform as a waste of bandwidth. But keeping open lines of communication is central to building trust with teams suddenly thrust into a remote work dynamic, executives say.
Fostering engagement is a business decision: a disconnected team will begin to falter, a grave concern as a recession looms.
Leaders who fail at building trust risk overlooking struggling workers, promoting a culture of secrecy that can lead to missed deadlines and lagging effectiveness. They will also fail to detect workers who abuse flexibility.
Understanding trust in the work context
There are two types of trust coming into play in remote team dynamics: cognitive and affective trust, according to Steve Van Zuylen, managing director and head of global markets at YSC Consulting.
Cognitive trust indicates the extent to which people deliver on their word. On the other end of the spectrum, there's affective trust, which is what people might feel with a friend — coming more from the heart.
In teams, "cognitive trust can be quickly eroded by people not doing what they say that they were going to do, by over-committing, which can be a big trust withdrawal," said Van Zuylen, in an interview with CIO Dive.
"One of the key things that leaders and teams need to focus on is being very, very clear about what they can commit to — what's realistic." Bosses who, for example, commit to no staff reductions will see trust quickly eroded if they later have to go back on their word.
To build affective trust, leaders must nurture relationships within the team, which is possible even when teams aren't co-located, it just requires more intention. Flexibility becomes a key component of trust.
"You can't expect [workers] to instantly replicate everything that they used to do at the water cooler," said J. P. Gownder, VP, principal analyst at Forrester, in an interview with CIO Dive.
In this context, managers need to earn the trust of employees by showing empathy and making employees feel their company's worth an extra effort under challenging circumstances, analysts say.
"By creating the conditions where people feel that they have to be 100% efficient, you actually encourage them to be secretive about the pain they're going through, the difficulties that they're going through, which again, erodes trust," said Van Zuylen.
How tech tools come into the picture
Feel like the past few weeks have been rocky at work? You're not alone.
Four in 10 respondents to a March 6 Blind survey said their productivity dipped due to concerns related to the virus. In turn, this has execs worried: six in 10 CFOs say they've been challenged by the productivity loss associated with remote work, according to a PwC survey.
In the face of a looming recession, missing deadlines and lagging productivity can compromise a company's financial position.
"The most important component of managing remote workers is being able to trust, but then verify," said Kristin Davidson, VP of human resources at Sonatype. "Too often people think that remote work means 'you don't know what people are actually doing.' That couldn't be further from the truth."
Davidson's roadmap for a successful remote team starts with trust, adding mechanisms for accountability and clear expectations.
"It's as simple as ensuring people have what they need to achieve what's expected from them," Davidson said.
This can mean different things for each company, but part of trust building can tie back to digital tools. Project management tools or efficiency tracking software let managers keep track of what's done when, adding a layer of transparency that can strengthen trust.
The risk is in the perception of a Big Brother, as well as letting those tools dictate what it means to get work done. Rather than tallying specific units of work or time spent on the job, the focus needs to remain on goals, Van Zuylen said.
"The more that you can build a trusting environment where performance goals are very clear, and you focus on goals, the more effective you're likely to be," Van Zuylen said.
But don't forget about how the pandemic impacts business-as-usual.
"If you're keeping all of your metrics identical to three weeks ago, you're setting your employees up for extra stress, you're setting yourself up for probably not meeting those goals," said Gownder.