Communication

Why trust is important on a hybrid team (and how managers can build it)

7 min read

Teams that succeed and fail at building a hybrid workplace are separated by one factor: trust. Learn why you need trust on your hybrid team and how to build it.

If the buzz about hybrid gives you deja vu to March 2020, you’re not alone. We’re facing another major transition into the unknown as the world prepares for life after COVID-19. Though many are relieved to finally return to the office, it’s clear that we’ll never be fully in-person like before. That’s what makes hybrid workplaces terrifying: hybrid isn’t a temporary fix, but a new operating system for the Future of Work.

Managers scramble to prepare their teams. Dozens of articles have popped up around hybrid workplace set-ups, performance reviews, and equitable benefits. They’ve answered how a company can navigate the transition to hybrid, but not how teams can make the leap.

Thankfully, teams that succeed and fail at building a hybrid culture are separated by one factor: employee trust. In this article, we’ll dive into:

Employee trust is correlated with effective teams

Ask any high-performing manager and they’ll share that their top priority is building trust with their team. That’s because employee trust enables alignment and clear communication, unlocking a team’s best work.

The Predictive Index defines organizational trust as “having the confidence of your workforce in the actions of your company.” When teammates can fully trust a company’s mission, culture, and actions, they’re able to carry out the vision and feel part of something greater.

Enough employee trust allows for psychological safety, a key factor in innovation and team growth. Psychological safety is the ability to fail or make mistakes without fear of punishment. In the 2015 study by Google, psychologically safe teams were “less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

Perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from Great Place to Work. Each year they conduct the world’s largest workplace study, annually surveying over 7,200 organizations representing 11 million employees in 52 countries on employee trust. In their report, The Business Case for A High Trust Culture, they found that companies with trust-based cultures typically enjoy:

  • Stock market returns approximately 2-3 times greater than the market average
  • Turnover rates that are approximately 50% lower than industry competitors
  • Increased levels of innovation, customer and patient satisfaction, employee engagement, organizational agility, and more

Why many employees don’t trust hybrid workplaces

If you’ve ever had a bad boss, it doesn’t take much to imagine a work environment with little to no employee trust. However, what happens when a hybrid environment lacks trust?

To visualize this, it helps to understand the argument against hybrid workplaces. Hybrid, regardless of where you stand with it, is really difficult to implement. It’s a balancing act, a merger of two very different employee experiences. Failure to balance both camps can lead to a ‘two-track’ culture, where companies split into two separate factions that rarely come together. Instead of collaborating, onsite and remote workers resent and undermine one another until nothing gets done.

The good news is that most hybrid workplace issues have less to do with hybrid processes and more to do with the people enforcing them. Let’s break down a few hybrid culture pitfalls:

Isolation/FOMO

There’s nothing worse than the fear of missing out. Unfortunately, this “second-class citizen” status was all too real for remote workers of the past. Inside jokes from hallway conversations and anecdotes from an unattended lunch left many remote workers out of the loop. When office workers are prioritized, remote workers can’t help but feel left out of experiences and opportunities.

Good leaders preserve psychological safety by eliminating cliques and fighting for the inclusion of everyone on the team. They strive for equitable treatment and take the time to give everyone feedback regardless of location. In turn, teammates trust that they’ll be given context and considered in decisions.

Uneven meetings and frequent miscommunication

While fully remote, meetings are on Zoom, well-documented and recorded, and turn-based. While in-person, meetings can get a bit more haphazard and free-flowing with less documentation and structure. Mash both without intentional rules, and you may have a group in the conference room speaking over those on Zoom.

Maintaining and respecting hybrid meeting rules around taking turns and making space for remote attendees requires employee trust. It also requires a significant amount of psychological safety to speak up as a remote satellite worker, especially when the majority of your team is sitting together in a conference room.

Poor documentation

If there’s one thing COVID taught us, it’s that remote and colocated teams have very different communication styles. Remote work requires more deliberate effort, set meeting agendas, and documentation. In-office, significantly less so.

To ensure clarity and alignment, remote managers make it a rule to document by default. However, this cannot happen without employee trust. Teammates have to trust that their notes will be read with best intent and that teammates are being as transparent as possible.

The Remote-Trust Paradox

Hybrid workplaces get ugly when teams don’t have the trust-based culture to navigate change. To make matters worse, many managers won’t realize why trust is important until it’s too late. Leaders will focus on adapting processes, not their culture, and find their teams completely fragmented as a result.

To be fair, building employee trust is incredibly difficult while remote. Most teams have at least one teammate they’ve never met in person and Zoom happy hours can’t always replace authentic, in-person moments. And yet, trust is the keystone for remote success, acting like glue for distant teams. We like to call this predicament the “Remote Trust Paradox.”

Commit Virtual 2021: The Skill of the Future - How Empathy Powers Remote Teams

If you’re looking to assess your team’s trust before you dive into a period of change, check out Kona’s free Psychological Safety survey.

Building trust in a hybrid culture

Here’s the good news: you don’t need perfect psychological safety to transition to a hybrid culture. However, you do need to prioritize it through every hybrid process and step of the way. Navigating the Remote Trust Paradox takes deliberate effort between managers and their team, and between teammates. Here are a few places to start:

Understand the pillars of trust

It’s easy to think of trust as an ideal rather than a goal for managers to strive for. Executive Coach, Anna Barber, breaks workplace trust into four basic pillars in a guide to psychological safety:

  • Sincerity. Sincerity stems from aligning your motivations with your actions.
  • Reliability. As a servant leader, you are there to support your teammates rather than assigning tasks.
  • Competence. Effective managers do not need to be the smartest in the room. They do, however, need to know how to support teammates so they can achieve the goals set.
  • Care. Managers should go the extra mile to care for their teammates, either by listening to them or gracefully working through mistakes.

Take a moment to reflect. What are a few ways, both remotely and in-office, that you can uphold these pillars and build trust with your team? How can you incorporate each of these pillars into the hybrid culture in your company?

Have an honest 1:1 about what each teammate will need

Manager 1:1s are a beautiful tool, especially for change management. Flexibility means something different for everyone and it’s important to prioritize the needs for each individual on your team. Your goal as a manager is to enable your team’s best work. The way they work differs from person to person.

Here are a few 1:1 questions to try:

  • How can I better support you?
  • How can we improve the way our team works together?
  • Do you have any questions that, if answered, would help you in your day to day?
  • What’s something you’d like to share but is a little stressful to bring up in person?
  • What’s a problem we have on our team that I might now know about?

Use in-person days for bonding

As remote experts like GitLab will tell you, it’s crucial to play to the strengths of both in-office and remote work. Teammates rightly miss in-office interactions. Nothing beats in-office lunches, games, and conversations for building vulnerability and authenticity. When you do have a chance to get everyone in the same room, don’t simply return to work as usual. Schedule in time for bonding and creative discussions.

At the same time, know that trust isn’t built through one-off events but through little moments of vulnerability and reliability. By understanding why trust is important and supporting your team wherever they may be, you’ll be fostering a hybrid culture that will last.

Guest post- Corine Tan
  • Corine Tan is the Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy. Connect with her on Twitter!

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