Remote work can be liberating, empowering and flexible – but it can also be intense and stressful, and when it’s not managed properly it can create all new kinds of problems. Trust is a big one: when a team exists only in a virtual workplace, it can be much harder to build trust – but without trust, any hope of cultivating a positive work culture disappears.
Without being able to see what employees are doing, some companies have turned to problematic methods of keeping tabs on their team. But the associated “slacking until proven productive” mindset it introduces can lead to other trust-based issues, like the rampant culture of virtual presenteeism.
Building trust in the remote workplace doesn’t happen overnight; it’s something that companies must continually work at through consistency. So how can you keep crucial team performance indicators visible without undermining remote employee trust?
Trust in the remote workplace
After almost a year of mass remote working, most of us have learned a lot. We know that remote work can enhance productivity – but it can also hinder it, particularly when it’s paired with all the uncertainty and upheaval of a global pandemic, trying to juggle family commitments with work, and dealing with all the technological problems that stem from WFH. While the drop in productivity is understandable, it would appear that some companies view it through a more negative lens, questioning whether their employees are simply lazy and unmotivated. The drive to keep remote employees visible has unwittingly led to a surge in surveillance software – quadrupling in some cases.
But the truth is that no matter what surveillance software you use, you can never know everything that your employees do – and absolutely no good can come from trying to. Remote workers already feel pressure to be visible and productive: according to one survey, nearly half of people who started working remotely in 2020 felt more pressure to be present, with 35% continuing to work when they were unwell. It’s important to note that lack of visibility is a problem with experienced remote workers, and for people still getting to grips with it, it’s often a much bigger issue.
So, we know the pressure to be present already exists. It’s the reason why people send emails out of hours – to let their coworkers and employers know they’re dedicated. It’s the reason most of us are working longer days – to prove to others we’re driven and dedicated. We allow our professional lives to encroach upon our personal lives all because we don’t feel trusted. Not only are these actions major contributing factors to burnout, but feeling like we need to “prove” ourselves because our colleagues doubt us is one of the quickest ways to destroy trust in any workplace – virtual or not.
Why is building trust in virtual teams so hard?
Before managers can address it, they first need to understand why building trust is so much harder in virtual teams. According to research published in Harvard Business Review, there are two distinct kinds of trust that are necessary for people to work well together: the first is that people need to believe that other people will deliver their work, on time, and of a good standard; the second is that they need to have interpersonal trust – to believe other people have good intentions and integrity. In order to be able to trust people in that way, you generally need to see what people are doing (actions), understand why they’re doing it (motivations), and know if they’ll continue to do it (reliability).
Obviously, when everyone’s working remotely, all these things become much more intractable. When we don’t spend time with people in person we miss those small actions that signal enthusiasm and dedication – seeing a colleague making notes during a meeting, for example, or expressing genuine interest in something you’re saying. In a virtual workplace, we also lack ways of building interpersonal trust and rapport. Without social encounters like after-work drinks or pay day parties, our working relationships will always stay rather one-dimensional, and because we feel we don’t really get to know the people we work with, our trust will be lower by default.
How can you keep remote teams visible without jeopardizing trust?
The good news is that there are ways to counter this – but it needs to be said that employee monitoring is never the answer. Using surveillance tools to track employee activity – whether you’re doing this openly or not – completely undermines employees’ right to privacy, cultivates a toxic presumption of guilt, and creates a sinister one-way power dynamic. When you’re tracking employees at home, it becomes even more invasive, because people’s homes should be private, safe spaces. But this doesn’t mean that using tools to keep remote team performance visible is inherently a bad thing – in fact, far from it.
The trick is to choose virtual tools that protect user privacy instead of endangering it. When your entire team is virtual, technology becomes your lifeline, so you need to carefully select software that actually enables your team and facilitates their work, instead of choosing tools that create division or erode personal boundaries. Trust starts with respecting everyone’s right to privacy – and team tracking should be about keeping basic performance and wellbeing indicators visible; so you can help people stick to their weekly capacity, address any instances of regular overtime, and support those with unmanageable workloads.
It’s important to remember that not all tracking tools are designed for surveillance; the right one can empower and benefit employees just as much as their employers. Look for tools that provide user-level privacy by design, so individual employees stay in control of their data and nothing is shared without their consent. Also be sensitive to what is being tracked: often, the information being captured is far more basic than users might think. Automatic time tracking apps that work by remembering what you worked on, for example, often just record an app name and timestamp – not the actual content of what you were doing within that tool.
Trust in the remote workplace beyond software
Of course, building trust among virtual teams is far more complex and subtle than just choosing the right virtual toolkit: it also hinges on psychological safety, having human-centric management, leading with empathy, and building inclusivity. Remote employees will be much more likely to share their experience openly if they feel part of a supportive, non-judgemental working culture – and a huge part of that lies with management accepting a certain level of employee invisibility. But while these shifts don’t happen overnight, choosing the right tools – and getting rid of the wrong ones – is a proactive step that every remote workplace can take immediately.