From HBR: WFH Is Corroding Our Trust in Each Other

About a third of the employees of a regional bank have returned to working onsite, and the president holds a weekly all-staff town hall meeting by videoconference. Employees are encouraged to submit anonymous questions for him or other senior leaders to answer. For the past six weeks, an increasing number of people have asked, “How do we know if the people who are still working from home are actually working?” Some employees have even suggested specific technology-based monitoring approaches to track remote workers’ onscreen time and activities.

Each week, the president assures his employees that the business is on track and that measures of productivity (like the number of loans taken out) are above expectations. “But it’s exasperating,” he said. “No matter how much I try to convince them or even use numbers and other kinds of evidence, it’s not sinking in. You’d think that if I can trust people, surely they can trust each other, right? But no.”

The crisis of trust this bank is facing is increasingly common as the strains of remote working wear down company culture and people’s goodwill. Early in the pandemic, stories of organizational heroics — like companies repurposing laptops en masse overnight to equip employees’ homes — abounded. And for a while, people gave each other the benefit of the doubt and didn’t mind making compromises like allowing the occasional deadline to slip so that people could take care of homeschooling or other new demands.

Over the past eight months, we’ve worked with and researched dozens of companies that are wrestling with this challenge in settings as varied as professional services, oil and gas, finance and insurance, healthcare, telecommunications, automotive, and tech. In each of them, we’ve seen a shift from the positive, “We’ve figured out this virtual work thing!” sentiments to the recognition that trust in their organizations — in individuals, relationships, and the organization — is fundamentally at risk. Increased reports of electronic monitoring also suggest that executives’ confidence in having figured it out is starting to ebb. For example, Hubstaff, a provider of time-tracking tools for remote work, reported a four-fold increase in its UK customers since February of 2020, and Sneek, whose technology takes webcam pictures of employees on a regular interval and shares them with colleagues, reported a five-fold increase.

It’s critical that company leaders work to rebuild and maintain trusting relationships — with and among their employees. Those that don’t risk far more than lower morale. The chances of increased attrition, lower productivity, and stalled innovation also loom large when trust plummets.