Remote and flexible working - the issue of trust

By 2020 it is estimated that 70% of UK businesses will have a flexible working policy in place.  Remote and flexible working (also referred to as agile working) boosts productivity and increases potential, retains skills and knowledge, attracts valuable new employees, reduces overheads, meets the needs of customers better, boosts employee engagement and well being and promotes motivation and emotional investment.

I am a flexible and mobile worker.  I use an office base, but ultimately can and do work anywhere (or nearly)!  I have good, up to date technology, access and use digitised work spaces and systems, the right toolkit, access to many different locations with hot spots and meetings places.  I also have the mindset needed and have adapted to the ways of working necessary, for example, how I use my time and think about work planning and communication with others. 

Organisations, and thus employers, are already addressing and implementing remote and flexible working.  The shift for those I work with, particularly in the public sector, is happening.  I have just completed a project with some staff and their managers in two joined up district councils as they embark on remote and flexible working together.  My work with them focused on workshop style activities, one with managers on identifying the challenges, and working out how they will address trust, technology challenges and managing to outcomes; then with staff in their teams, helping them discuss and understand what this will mean in practice in a results orientated work environment (ROWE).

Whilst technology, management communication and support, working differently, workload and location were all key areas that arose, the top issue was trust.  People acknowledged that the biggest single thing they have to work on is trust between individuals, between teams, between managers, between managers and staff. 

What is ROWE and why is trust the biggest issue?

ROWE measures outputs and outcomes, not presence, so employees are performance managed on results (output) rather than showing up and being present in a particular place or the number of hours worked.  Also:

  • Goals are defined to work to for individuals and teams which can be clearly met (or not).
  • Each individual is 100% accountable and autonomous.  This means each person is crystal clear about their measurable results and outcomes.
  • Performance conversations are ongoing and focused on relationship building.
  • Teams are highly collaborative and focused on the customer.
  • There is a culture of empowerment, competence and trust.

People have the freedom to complete their work through self management and greater autonomy, things known to promote motivation and well being.  It means each person has the opportunity to have a more unique and "tailored" way of working that contributes to their life work balance and work commitments.

Working on trust

We started to address trust in the workshop time.  I used a model of trust that has the building blocks of: competence trust, contractual trust and communication trust.  People earn the trust of others when they demonstrate all three forms of transactional trust.  "Transactional" is used because it is reciprocal in nature - you have to give trust to get trust and it is created incrementally.

Contractual trust sets the tone and direction of the team.  Communication trust establishes information flow and how team members talk with one another.  Competence trust focuses on capability, leveraging and further developing skills and knowledge (so micro managing is a sign that competence trust is lacking by the manager, for example).

Workshop outcomes

  • We discovered that all three forms of trust needed working on.  Perhaps not a surprise.  we also discovered that some parts of the team were very good at cultivating some forms of trust already.  In particular one set were able to speak about and discuss performance and share information openly and how they spoke about and with each other indicated a high level of communication trust. 
  • As all the sessions finished with action planning, managers and staff teams were able to identify actions to feedback and take forwards. 
  • Managers identified they would also action how they would performance manage in the ROWE environment and how to measure outputs and outcomes when everyone is working differently.

In conclusion, here are some of my recommendations for building trust in a remote and flexible working environment:

1. Do what you say you're going to do.  Be reliable and accountable.

2. Communicate openly and honestly.

3. Make sure you maintain your competence, regularly review your development needs and undertake CPD.

4. Show empathy and be confident at challenging.  Open, honest relationships mean you can maintain trust even when you don't see people all the time.

If your organisation is embarking on remote and flexible working, or agile working, and needs to work through the challenges, please get in touch.