Leadership that instils trust in remote working

“How do I know that people are actually working?”  This is a question I have been asked several times during these unprecedented times.

The global pandemic has made a major dent on the world of management and leadership.  What worked yesterday in how we manage our teams, suddenly changed overnight with the introduction of lockdown rules.  With most managers saying that their working practices have changed during this crisis and many having to manage remotely for the first time, remote team leaders are challenged to change the way things have always been done and having to define management best practices for the future.

To question whether a remote team are actually working implies that if you can see people are physically in the office, then they are working. But we know that it is not always the case.  A lot of time is wasted on things that have nothing to do with work — checking social media feeds, attending unproductive meetings, getting stuck on emails when we should be working on that important report.

According to research, managers that cannot “see” their reports working, struggle to trust that they are indeed productive.  When there is a lack of trust an unreasonable expectation can develop that team members be available at all times.  When team members feel like they have to be available all the time, it can add more work stress, especially if having to balance home life too.

The potential benefit of remote working is that it can be more productive than office working and the benefits arise mainly from the amount of autonomy that are afforded to remote workers.  When the autonomy is low then it increases micromanagement, because of management mistrust.

Absence of Trust

Managing a remote team requires trust and transparency and centres around building and supporting a team that doesn’t need to be micromanaged. It means that managers have to put more focus on the outputs of the work than the inputs and measure productivity not by time spent on work, but on the results that are achieved.

And it all depends on the level of trust that management have towards their team.

“Absence of trust is the biggest dysfunction in a team”, says Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

According the Pat Lencioni, the foundational dysfunction in a team is the absence of trust.  Trust means different things to different people and when it comes to teams, your confidence in their work is all about how open you and your team are with one another about your mistakes and weaknesses.  Members of trusting teams can admit weaknesses and mistakes, they ask for help, take risk in offering feedback and assistance and tap into one another’s skills and experiences.

In traditional office working environments, trust is not always considered consciously, merely implied over time.  In remote working environments however, trust has to be actively thought about and managed rather than it being just a passive emotion.

When there’s lack of trust in a team it fosters fear of conflict and teams can not engage in “a passionate debate of ideas” and do not push each other out their emotional comfort zones and as results do not make the best decisions for the organisation.

How do we build trust?  First to not be afraid of honesty, to admit when wrong or made a mistake.  To reach out for help.  To say, “I’m not sure” or even “I’m sorry”, Lencioni says.

Psychological safety

However, do be open and vulnerable like this, teams need to feel psychologically safe. Amy Edmonson, Harvard Business School Professor defines Psychological safety as: “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.

In remote working environments creating a culture of psychological safety is paramount to build a team on a foundation of trust. Based on the research of “Project Aristotle” by Google, there are 5 key dynamics that make teams successful:  psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact.

Psychological safety stood out as the most important factor.

Team members that feel psychologically unsafe processes any usually insignificant communication as antagonistic in the brain (amygdala) and that in turn activates the fight-or-flight response.  When this reaction is provoked, it clouds a person’s reasoning ability and can initiate fear.  As team leaders, we set the tone of how safe our team members feel.

With remote working, where it is more challenging to read body language and meaning, plus the added stress of dealing with uncertainty, it is crucial that we lead with clarity and empathy within a culture of safety.  We have to create an environment where team members feel comfortable to share their thinking with confidence, are encouraged to have open and honest conversations and trust is engendered.

Great leaders create space for other people to innovate, work across boundaries, and prepare for the complex challenges that lie ahead.  Remote and virtual working are here to stay and as managers we need to be pro-active, implementing the right strategies to ensure that trust will flourish within that environment.