The Secret to Virtual WorkAug 17, 2021
Written by Ed Cook
Perhaps the most consequential business decision of 2021 will be to what extent a business should return to the office. With COVID-19 continuing to impact the planet (and sadly showing signs of a very strong resurgence), it seems likely that we will continue working virtually at least in part. It also seems increasingly likely that as this situation continues, we will never use offices in the way we did two years ago. Virtual work will no longer be for distributed salespeople and a few other job types that make up a fraction of the workforce. It will be for everyone. So how do we do it well? Answer: With Trust.
“One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life.” -- E.M. Forster
But what is Trust? And, why do we want to build it? Let’s start with trust. We place our trust “in” things and people, as in, “I put my trust in this old car,” or “I put my trust in Angela,” or even “I put my trust in God.” We talk about “my trusty pen,” or “umbrella,” or “screwdriver.” But how do we know we have Trust? The one key characteristic of Trust is that it is something given, as in, “I give my trust to you.” It cannot be taken or really even earned. The origin of the word itself is from Old Norse and means strength. In giving Trust, you are giving your strength to another. A powerful gift.
As to why we want to build trust, especially in a team situation, the value is clear. The team is stronger. This may make more sense if the team is thought of as the collection of connections between the members of the team. The collective strength of those connections is the strength of the team. Building trust is team-building.
There are many activities undertaken by managers in the hope of team-building. Outings to group activities like bowling or golf, group experiences like ropes courses or retreats. Even lunches and happy hours are often undertaken in the name of team-building. The problem is that team-building activities cannot be merely episodes in the life of a team. Although ropes courses and team outings and, yes, even trust falls can create comfort between team members, they cannot create trust. These efforts are more of a quick, sugar high. Tasty, but it doesn’t nourish. This is particularly true when the team is working mostly through virtual means.
The Steps to Trust
This caution about quick fixes provides a guide to the activities that will truly build the team. One of the ways to build trust is for each of the team members to express to all of the others the unique value they bring to the team. Then the other members of the team tell that person what they appreciate about them. This Employee Appreciation Exercise is something we have done with many teams and the results continue to surprise us. In a simple exercise like this, people who are normally emotional rocks will tear up as they hear what others appreciate about them. In many cases, they did not realize the value that others held for them. Trust was implied but not expressly given. A video meeting is a perfectly good way to do this for a team that must work virtually.
This brings up the second way to build trust: Use video. Effective human communication relies strongly on audio and visual information not just the conceptual content of the message. So a phone call is better than an email, and a video conference is better than a phone call. Making sure that the message is fully received is certainly important in the giving of trust. How sad it is to mean to convey your trust only to have the receiver miss the message because of the limits of the medium.
The third way to build trust is the most obvious and most difficult. It must be given. Since trust is a gift, it cannot be earned by the team member on the other end of the video chat. It must be given. In that gift, you are strengthening the team and increasing the chances of your own success. For managers, actually doing this when there is so much pressure to deliver results, can be too difficult without a guideline. We use a Leadership Bubble as a construct to help managers with how much freedom versus control to give an employee. It is a practical way to give trust. Keep the bubble too tight and the employee doesn’t grow because the manager is micromanaging. Make the bubble too big and the employee can make a mistake that is detrimental to themselves and the company. The trick is to trust them enough to make some mistakes because it is through those mistakes that learning occurs. This is more powerful than any employee development and training program. This is hands-on doing, the linchpin of adult learning.
Trust is about Culture
The best managers know that the key to working well virtually is not about tools, technology, or tips & tricks, although they help do it better. The key to working well virtually is about workplace culture. To have a great workplace culture an organization must have trust. Managers must give trust to build it within their organizations.
We describe a great workplace culture as one that grows Joy at Work. In our Guide to Joy at Work, we outline Ten Dimensions that define how to know if you have Joy at Work. Trust is right at the center of the Ten Dimensions. To make a truly great workplace that grows Joy at Work, (whether in the office or virtually or some hybrid) managers should focus on trust.
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