Trust — The Supervisor's Challenge in the World of Teleworking

Marcus’ supervisor hasn’t seen him on a video conference in three weeks and only gets cc’d on emails occasionally. His deliverables continue to show up in his client’s mailbox, and his contact continues to sing his praises. Still, his lines of communication with his supervisor are frayed, at best.

Martine e-mails her supervisor every single day. She updates him on her activities, but she seems more interested in self-promotion than in producing output. On the occasional Zoom call, he sees her looking professional in an office setting. He thinks to himself, “It’s almost like the good old days, back at the office.”

Who Should Be Trusted?

The obvious answer is Marcus, who’s in full production mode. We may be able to trust both, but that’s because trust is a two-way challenge.

It’s enough of a challenge, in fact, that Forbes contributor Rajeev Peshawaria, suggests that we shouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. He contends that clear, well-defined performance criteria can readily overcome concerns about trust. In fact, he argues that face-to-face trust can be deceiving because humans don’t have the best track record when it comes to evaluating trustworthiness.

He believes that the need to determine who should be trusted can be eliminated if we have systems in place to validate outcomes, deliverables, and performance.

How Do We Earn Trust?

Most people had a parent like mine who, at one time or another, uttered the fateful words, “Trust is earned.” I have found this axiom to be true. As managers and supervisors, we need to enable trust-earning opportunities — doors opening for our personnel and team members to walk through. We can accomplish that through timing, communications, digital equality, and team-sharing opportunities.

Flexjobs senior researcher Christine Bernier Lienke posed the question, “Which Is the Best Day to Work from Home?” Oddly enough, she discovered that individuals who were anxious to take Wednesday as a primary work-from-home day were on the right track. The midweek break builds trust both ways. It affirms that the teleworker is not using work-from-home to create a 3-day weekend. And, it relieves supervisors of the urge to micromanage. Win-win.

Communication in both directions also increases trust. It doesn’t have to be on the scale of Martine’s daily digests. A regular rhythm of communications provides a sense of comfort that distance won’t equate to lost messaging. Some examples of how teleworking employees can build trust include:

  • Offer suggestions on new avenues for telework
  • Provide regular periodic updates on outcomes and performance
  • Allow management to manage by exception, by reporting exceptional incidents

How Do Supervisors and Managers Express Trust?

On the managerial side, one of the most significant trust-building efforts comes with digital equality. Journalist Clark Merrifield points to a series of five different studies that highlight the tendency to afford telework opportunities only to those in white-collar positions. In addition, those in rural areas tend to have lower access to adequate broadband Internet. The supervisor who can find ways to enable telework for those who traditionally have been left out will inherently build a great deal of trust within the lower-access communities. Some examples of how supervisors and managers can express trust to teleworkers include:

  • Creating telework opportunities where they have not traditionally existed
  • Avoiding the temptation to micromanage
  • Offering regular communication hours to keep information flowing
  • Setting clear, objective criteria for success

Over time, these approaches build mutual trust. For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened doors to the teleworking for the first time. Managers need to allow telecommuting relationships to evolve naturally. Enforcing too many rules or threatening to rescind teleworking agreements away can kill this time of outstanding innovation, which is enabled by trust. For all of the challenges COVID-19 has brought with it, this is an outstanding opportunity.

Written by:
Carl Pritchard
Human Capital & Human Resources



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