The Covid-19 global pandemic has resulted in revolutionary socio-economic and psychological transformations across the world. The twenty-first-century plague has been responsible for disruptions on both a macro and micro level, from the suspension of air travel, the closing of international borders, to self-isolation and the habitual use of face masks – all measures designed specifically to reduce disease and limit fatalities. However, one of the most pointed changes to everyday life has been the promulgation of the concept of working from home, radically transforming the workplace experience like never before. So have we become too trusting of remote working?
Although the ease of communications by email and the internet had made home working a distinct possibility in many industries, the concept developed with a new urgency when the pandemic hit, and governments began to mandate working at home when possible.
Workers and bosses alike have been tasked to develop new technologies, new processes and fresh management tools, to respond to the new situation. But at the heart of this lies the question of trust. Can the new systems developed in response to Covid-19, herald a new way of working going forward, or are we being too trusting of the concept of remote working?
2020 saw companies having to adapt, at a moment’s notice, to operating their businesses with an active, but remote workforce, with business dynamics restructured overnight.
For many workers, the positives were clear at the outset. No more expensive, time-wasting commutes on overcrowded railways or motorways, no stressful and unnecessary interactions with colleagues over the coffee machine – more time to spend with the family and perhaps even the opportunity to pick the kids up from school (if the schools weren’t closed).
For employers, there are advantages too – less expensive office space to occupy and reduced costs of employing staff on-site.
So the technology for home working is in place, and many workers have adapted their homes to this new paradigm. As the coronavirus epidemic eases, many companies will allow or even encourage their staff to work partially or entirely from home. But now that almost two years of the ‘new norm’ have passed, researchers from Harvard and Oxbridge have highlighted trust as the central issue on which remote working could thrive or fail going forward.
Although the pandemic has been massively disruptive, business analysts Forbes observe that it has built enormous resilience in both managers and staff, especially as a result of remote working, which has seen to even attract and retain talent, that would otherwise have been missed. However, to make the new workplace efficient, managers must trust the workers are on message and completing their tasks, with no more than email, Zoom and other technological interactions to monitor their activity.
Trust Can Thrive
Employer and employee satisfaction were traditionally built through the establishment of not only company loyalty, but also personal loyalty generated by time spent with colleagues not only at work but socially outside of the working day. The power of human connection is compelling, but Forbes concludes that does not necessarily demand a 24/7 bond, but can be just as powerful with more sporadic, but targeted points of contact in the talent pipeline. Trust, it seems, can thrive if managed purposefully.
Of course, many people still prefer to leave their home-head at home and travel to an office where they feel they can be more focused on the task at hand. Office work can also generate a greater sense of inclusivity on which both workers and managers have historically been able to flourish, and it’s been argued that for younger and more ambitious workers, the only way to ensure professional development is through social interaction in the workplace.
For remote working to function in the long term, it would require everyone in the communications pipeline to build and maintain connections, in the way they would have in the office. Trust is a fundamental requisite if trying to maintain a sense of team building. If staff avoid interacting with colleagues they are not particularly keen on for example, in a purposeful way, stability and purpose is lost.
In this way, people who are working from home can be in effect out of their manager’s sight-lines, which is why trust again is a major factor in this new workplace dynamic. In some cases – such as call handlers – automated systems can monitor and report on work performance. But how does a company assess the long-term workflow of an employee they may only hear from sporadically?
Organisations need to support their remote workers with new trust-building protocols that reassure them that the new set-up is not only good for the company, but also for them and their families.
Clear instruction regarding the technology used to enable remote working is essential to build trust. Coaching staff on how to feel at ease on a video call is really smart – while most of us have got used to the stylings of email, such as abbreviations and emojis, many struggle with the protocols of a Zoom call. The questions that might arise range from the crucial to the comical – for instance, how should workers be expected to dress for a video conference? Is it acceptable to eat or drink during a Zoom call? And what do you do if your cat (or child) walks across your keyboard while you’re in conference with your MD?
Some may miss the simple camaraderie generated by office events such as celebrations of birthdays. This can be done remotely, but you can’t share a cake online. More importantly, will remote workers feel that they are being excluded from vital decision-making going on in the office? In essence, trust works both ways and requires that remote workers feel they are as important to the company as those in the office, and the company feels that remote workers have the same commitment to productivity and mutuality as those who are present in the flesh.
Trust Begets trust
Psychologists cite that, ‘trust begets trust’ and while previously regarded as a soft management skill, compared to some technological or scientific skills, remote working has boosted its importance to the very heart of a healthy work culture.
The health debate has after all dominated our lives for the past two years, physically, mentally and emotionally. It is really no surprise that these topics are the fulcrum on which business is now centred. Developing trust with, and among colleagues has an impact on the quality of our work and the long-term outlook of our careers, like never before.
A flexible, geographically dispersed workforce is now inevitable, although, in order to maintain trust, a one-size-fits-all solution will never succeed. Solutions must be developed around individuals.
Although the virtual workplace was foisted on companies and their workforces through extraordinary circumstances, as Boris Johnson moves to abandon Plan B Covid-19 regulations at the end of January 2020, and withdraw the need to work from home, some trust in this process has been proven, and the likelihood of it being a significant element of the employment landscape going forward is inevitable.
Trust has grown in the benefits that remote working can offer to both managers and staff alike, at a time of extreme uncertainty and mental fatigue. As Covid loosens its grip on our daily lives, the new norm will definitely include elements of remote working. As a society, we recognise that can build resilience, offer flexibility and unexpectedly can cater more profoundly to the needs of the individual.
According to a YouGov poll in September 2021, 50% of the British workforce were working from home, and 60% would like to work from home permanently if they had a choice. Trust in this process has been won through experience and has earned the right to stay a vibrant and growing part of the British economic landscape.
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