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Work and the Coronavirus

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Helping people understand how COVID-19 affects work and employment by sharing insights and help from ILR's workplace experts.

Should I Trust You?

An open laptop showing a zoom meeting window with multiple participants

Kylie Grinwald

We’ve all entered a video call while working remotely this year to find that we’re the only person in the group with our webcam on. Our coworkers can see our face, but we can’t see theirs. We awkwardly turn off our webcam and wonder whether our coworkers are paying attention.

As many of us have recently learned, the sudden shift to remote work causes challenges. We've experienced changes to our workdays such as virtual meetings and more asynchronous communication that might be less than ideal.

But, beyond these challenges, remote work might also make it harder to trust our coworkers. Research shows that remote team members are more likely to mistrust each other than their in-person counterparts.

High team trust is made up of three important characteristics. First, high-trust team members believe that others in their groups will keep their word on commitments. They also accept being vulnerable in uncertain situations. They have a firm belief that “others [will] take action for the good of the team.” And, high team trust is important because high-trust team members support each other's projects and take smart risks.

Unfortunately, negative consequences like poor financial performance and inefficiency often come from low trust. The higher the trust in an organization, the higher the working speed and the lower the cost. Author and former CEO Stephen M. Covey describes this finding as a “low-trust tax” on organizations with low levels of trust between team members.

Studies also show a correlation between high trust and above-average stock performance. The Harvard Business Review reported on the connection between employee trust and financial outcomes. It cited several studies that link high-trust organizations with financial performance better than that of index funds like the S&P 500.

So, what can we do to reap the dividends of high trust within our organizations? There are several answers. We can follow through on goals, build respectful relationships and design processes to promote trust.

First, employees trust leaders who explain their goals for company performance and follow through on them. Goals that are genuine and benefit both the employer and the employees are best for building trust.

The next trust-building best practice is demonstrating respect for employees. For example, Campbell Soup Company showed respect for employees by renovating physical workspaces and sending thousands of hand-written notes to thank employees. Employees felt noticed through improved office spaces and letters in their mailboxes, and the company noticed results such as lower attrition and higher performance.

Another way to build trust is by designing team-formation and hiring processes that emphasize it. The decision to form an in-person, remote or semi-remote team has unexpected impacts on the level of trust within the team. Research found that semi-remote teams -- ones with some team members in the office and others working remotely -- scored poorly in team trust and culture. Those in the office formed an "in-group" that excluded remote team members and led to mistrust. However, teams that are exclusively in-person or remote had equally high levels of team trust and better team culture. An organization’s best bet is to form teams that are either entirely in-person or entirely remote, not a mix of the two.

Another idea is to hire individuals who are trustworthy and contribute to a trusting work environment. Character and competence are the building blocks of trust. However, the current ways we recruit and select employees may not value character enough.

Exactly how can we measure character when interviewing and selecting candidates? That could be a topic for your next video call with your corporate human resources team (webcams on, of course). Ideas may include conducting thorough background checks, scoping out social media accounts and fully leveraging behavioral interviews to tease out an applicant’s ethical track record.

There's much that is still unknown about the tangible benefits of organizational trust and how to build it. COVID-19 caused new and rampant insecurity in the market and in workplaces, and eyes are opening to the importance of trust to resolve it.

For many leaders, 2020 is the first time they’ve found themselves asking questions such as:

  • Can productivity really remain high if my entire workforce is remote?
  • Which information sources can I trust to guide company health and safety policies?
  • How do employees communicate differently if they have never met one another?

By the inevitable next time our organizations encounter periods of unprecedented change, I hope that robust academic research will have provided these answers and ensure that organizational trust is a constant.

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