On Trust and Communication in the New Workplace

Ask anyone what makes a workplace successful, and they’ll likely say communication. But what do they mean by that? We read the tea leaves to see if we could figure it out.

We recently asked dozens of HR professionals for the best tips on managing a remote workforce. While we were expecting a variety of answers, one thing came up again and again. Communication.

This was interesting. Even in an office environment, the vast majority of communications take place via electronic means—email, Slack, etc. Why does it seem so important in a remote setting?

The issue seems to be the kinds of conversations that are typically not held online, even in an office. We’ve all been online long enough to be keenly aware that we should never type anything on our computer, even in a “private” channel, that we don’t want made public. But there are some things that we do want to keep private. Someone might want the ability to talk to HR about parental leave options while still keeping their pregnancy status as quiet as possible. Sometimes we need to vent with our colleagues about things without worrying what may come back to haunt us. These are conversations that we’re naturally nervous about having online. And of course we’ve all learned in the last few months how awkward remote layoffs can be.

Hybrid, whether taking the form of so many days per week in the office or quarterly offsites, can only get you so far. Those may provide opportunities to bring people together, but you have to work on the online conversations as much as the offline ones. Otherwise your onsite feels less like a group of friends coming together and more like the random table at a wedding where no one knows each other and is forced to make labored small talk about how they know the couple.

One word that comes up frequently in the conversations we’ve had with remote workers is “trust”. Conventional wisdom is that you have to trust that employees will get their work done, but it goes beyond that. Your team needs to trust that you, their employer, care about them as individuals and are also not monitoring every single thing they’re doing online. They need to trust that they can have important conversations with their coworkers.

How do you make that happen? Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand that can immediately build trust and improve conversations amongst coworkers. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can try. Fully remote companies have great success encouraging employees in the same metro areas to get together. Hybrid teams are much more successful if there’s structured time to their days in the office. And be upfront on your company’s policies regarding what communication is monitored and what isn’t.

But also, take every opportunity you can to get to know your coworkers as individuals and not just employees. Ask about hobbies, find out what’s going on with them. It’s not that these conversations are inherently more difficult with a remote team, but they are easy to forget if your communication only focuses on work. No matter where we are or how we work, human connection is vital to making us feel like our jobs are worthwhile. Make sure you keep that in mind with your own team.