How can you trust people you only see on screen? Seeing eye to eye goes beyond being in the same room. 

Trust in the workplace has always been a hot topic. Colleagues with confidence in one another are a huge advantage to a team, resulting in increased collaboration, higher efficiency and good decision-making. But ever since remote work went mainstream, issues of trust have reached a boiling point. The most heated discussions center around how managers can trust dispersed teams to be productive.  

Yet managers aren’t the only people with trust issues. Remote employees worry about missing out on opportunities for advancement and building a work community. 

As a result, many leaders cite trust as a reason to return to the office. And while proximity provides familiarity and a sense of control, those factors alone don’t lead to trust. With the right guidelines, trust can grow in any team—in person, hybrid, or 100% remote. 

What is trust? 

Trust is the belief that one is safe, reliable, credible and helpful. Experts break it down further: 

  • Practical trust is earned by being dependable, being competent, living up to promises, and taking accountability for one’s actions. If a job is done well, practical trust comes quickly. 
  • Emotional trust takes longer to win, but it can pay dividends. It is earned by creating meaningful bonds with coworkers, treating people with respect, sharing thoughts and feelings, and going the extra mile for colleagues. 

Trust can take some time to build. It is accumulated through regular, positive interactions with others.  

Trust is a three-way street 

Workplace trust isn’t a top-down mandate, nor is it about employees pledging fealty to their managers. It requires three kinds of relationships. Leaders must trust employees, employees must trust leaders, and colleagues must trust in one another. Trust is everyone’s responsibility. Here are a few ways to create a culture of trust throughout your remote or hybrid workplace.  

  • Set clear expectations. When everyone is aligned behind the same purpose and goals, managers can provide clear work expectations and performance metrics that make sense to employees. Employees can provide clear information about the help they need from managers to achieve common goals. And colleagues can work together to figure out how to divide the workload to succeed together. 
  • Trust others and they’ll trust you. Putting trust in others makes them feel good and makes them want to trust in return, so it’s important to model respectful behavior. Managers should trust employees to make key decisions in their area of expertise. Employees should trust managers by candidly discussing their career goals. And teammates should trust one another to do the job to the best of their ability. 
  • Treat people like humans. Taking an interest in other people’s wellbeing, beyond what is necessary for the job, provides insight into what motivates people, why they act the way they do, and what they have in common. It leads to better working relationships, friendships, workplace satisfaction and compassion. If colleagues share their personal responsibilities and struggles, their coworkers are likely to have compassion should they miss a meeting or leave early.  
  • Create community. People want fellowship and camaraderie—even if they prefer to work from home. Community-building should be an intentional pursuit among managers, be it scheduling a regular digital team lunch or organizing an in-person gathering for remote and hybrid teams. A little social face time goes a long way toward team spirit. 
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Transparent, clear and inclusive communication empowers a team to do its best work, creating an environment where everyone is comfortable sharing ideas. Whether sending an email, phoning a colleague, or presenting to the whole team, the focus should be on clarity and detail. 
  • Assume good intent. Most people want to do a good job and be a valued colleague, so when a problem comes up, teammates should offer the benefit of the doubt. A message can be easily misconstrued over email or Slack. An issue that appears worrying might simply be a misunderstanding, so assume the best and get clarification to confirm. An issue that is worrying might be resolved with further discussion.  

Professional Development

Individual performance for better performing teams

Managers and leaders play a huge role in workplace trust 

Leaders set the pace for trust in an organization. Here are a few ways to accelerate trust-building and avoid trust-busting. 

  • Celebrate autonomy. Today’s talent is looking for an organization that provides flexibility and autonomy. There is no one-size-fits-all work style, so employees should be left to structure their workday in a way that sets them up for success. That may mean starting work at 9 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., working from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or experimenting with a new process for tackling an established task. As long as theyand their teamget good results, then it’s a win for everybody. 
  • Do check-ins, not check-ups. Checking up on employees to see if they’re getting their work done is a surefire way to erode trust. Instead, ask them how they’re doing, inquire about any challenges, or offer to lend a hand. 
  • Ban bossware. Nothing kills trust faster than micromanaging with productivity-tracking software, or “bossware,” which allows an organization to spy on employee computers to ensure productivity. Bossware is the antithesis of trust-building—it feels like an invasion of privacy and breach of trust. Not to mention, most employees know how to game the system anyway.  
  • Avoid surprises. Unless it’s a $1 million bonus, a surprise can erode trust. An unexpected change of plans or a new employee can create defensiveness in people. When employees are aware about what’s happening well in advance, they can ask questions and prepare for what’s next. 
  • Act on feedback. All feedback can be constructive—even if it’s critical. Rather than brushing it off, leaders should turn it into a trust-building opportunity. Taking visible action on feedback is one of the best ways to increase loyalty and trust. 

We’re all still learning 

When remote work went from a temporary solution to a permanent reality, most people still hadn’t been trained for being part of a virtual team. It isn’t easy and it takes time. But the most successful remote teams made trust a consistent priority.  

Read more about Korn Ferry’s commitment to professional development, helping specialized teams improve skills and performance to achieve their potential.