Fostering a high-trust culture when your workforce is dispersed

With many companies forced to shift to widespread remote-working in recent months, business leaders and HR teams have been reevaluating how they communicate with their workforce and how they maintain trust between employees and employers.  The 2020 annual Edelman Trust Barometer found ‘my employer’ to be the most trusted institution worldwide, sitting above the government and the media, and the Trust and the Coronavirus special report found employer communications to be the most credible source of information about the pandemic.


In order to gain the confidence of their workforce and to also maintain a high level of trust in times of uncertainty and flux, leaders must demonstrate openness and honesty. Responding to employees’ ideas and concerns constructively, and making decisions with the development of both the business and people in mind, is more important than ever and integral in developing trust.
Richard Horner, Head of Individual Protection, MetLife UK has almost a decade of experience managing home workers at MetLife and discusses below the importance of building trust within a remote workforce, and how to react if that trust breaks down.
Keeping up communication
Clear communication should be at the heart of every business strategy and, during this period of drastic change, workforces have been looking to leadership teams to uphold an increased level of openness and visibility. In the absence of impromptu conversations by the kettle, regular check-ins are key.
Instead of monthly meetings, many managers have been catching-up with their teams regularly and providing updates on the transition back to the workplace. The Edelman Coronavirus special report shows that 48 per cent of people would like to receive this information via email or newsletter, as opposed to posts on the company website (33 per cent) or virtual conferences (23 per cent).
Strong communication is not only about informing employees about upcoming changes but being transparent about the reasoning behind these and involving them in the decision-making as much as possible. This is of particular importance when considering the return to work as many will be feeling uncertain about the next stage and will want their individual concerns recognized and addressed.
Forums for discussion 
This forced experiment in large-scale remote working has undoubtedly changed the way a lot of companies operate. Now that we have overcome the initial stage of self-consciousness, video conferencing looks like it is here to stay.
However, leaders have to compensate for the lack of ability to read a person’s body language and demeanor on video. Some people will still find video-meetings particularly anxiety-inducing, so it is important to adapt communication channels to make sure everyone has a voice.
Increasingly, it will be possible to conduct meetings face-to-face, but there are new processes and protocols to follow, and it’s important to ensure that participants are comfortable with this.
Whether meetings take place online or in-person, employees should be made to feel empowered. While agendas can help to give structure to meetings, if they’re too stringently enforced, they can restrict the natural flow of conversation. A looser framework may promote a more equal conversation.
Training for trust
It is important that employees feel supported both inside and outside their working hours. Training is key to help leaders and managers deliver this holistic support. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for management; every individual will work differently and have different needs. 
Home working has given a whole new meaning to work-life balance, with disturbances from children, pets and partners becoming commonplace. It is therefore more important than ever to encourage managers to check in with their teams regularly, enquiring about what can be done to make their working experience more comfortable and responding constructively.
If things go wrong
In many ways, it is far easier for trust to break down than it is to build up, so it is vital to react quickly and efficiently should this happen. In the office setting, when there is an issue, you can see the problem and its impact. Therefore, away from that setting, you need to make sure that you have clear documentation of what is going on and can have a ‘face to face’ conversation to avoid misunderstandings.
It is crucial not to avoid difficult conversations. It may seem easier to postpone an awkward discussion when you are not in the same space as your co-workers but, if left unaddressed, a small issue can snowball. Therefore, it is important to be proactive and have an open discussion, in a non-confrontational manner, about ways of working together to move forward.
Putting in the work
There is undeniable value in cultivating a high-trust culture, with employee advocacy, loyalty, engagement, and commitment being among the top benefits. High levels of trust have also been shown to correlate positively with employee wellbeing. Business leaders and HR teams have a significant role to play in building a culture of trust within their organizations.
 It is unclear how the cultural changes we are seeing now may translate into a post COVID world, but with dispersed workforces set to become more common, mutual trust will be more important than ever.