Trust and Remote Work: How to do it Right

A goldsmith in his shop

I was recently brought in to do an assessment of a department with very low morale and high staff turnover. I found one of the main sources of dissatisfaction to be the remote work policy.

That’s not exactly correct. The organization had a generous policy. Unfortunately the department manager refused to follow it.

This manager insisted that people show up at their desks at 9 and stay until 4:30 everyday. She was, frankly, a control freak and allowing people to work from home made it more difficult for her to control them.

Attitudes to remote work vary widely. Not everyone thinks it is a good thing, and some industries and jobs are not well-suited to it. Yet every indication is that the future will bring more remote work as companies do the math and calculate the possible savings in real estate costs. And more people, having had the experience of skipping their commute and working from home, will want to continue working remotely.

This brings me to a thorny topic: trust. Trust is probably the biggest barrier to successful remote work. If employees are not on-site, employers may be suspicious that they are not putting in a full day’s work. The flipside is resentment by employees who may be working just as hard or harder as they do at the office, but feel constantly monitored or micromanaged. Add to this mix a remote work policy that is unclear or unevenly applied and you have the makings of an unhappy workplace.

How can employers ensure that the work gets done when their staff are not physically present? And how can employees be sure that their efforts will be recognized?

We usually think of trust in personal terms. We trust some people but not others. Yet in a workplace setting, thinking of trust only as a personal attribute leads to problems in the long run. I’ve seen enough managers make the wrong choice in deciding which employees to trust to make me think that none of us may have very good judgement in this regard.

Instead of deciding which employees are “trustworthy,” set out clear expectations for everyone and put your trust in a system that tracks employee’s results – not the amount of time they spend at their desk.

Whatever system you come up with will depend on your particular industry. If you have different people doing similar tasks, you will need a way to compare them to one another. If you have a split workforce, with some working remotely and others on-site, you will also want to compare their results. Just make sure everyone knows what is going on, what outcomes you are tracking, and why. This is a case where more transparency is better than less.

I’ve heard about companies that make employees who are working remotely “sign in” at specific times and remain on-line for a set number of hours. Unless this is absolutely necessary for employees to accomplish their tasks, I would avoid such a system. First, there will always be people smart enough to get around whatever system of surveillance you put in place. Faking actual results is much harder. Second, one of the main benefits to employees of remote work is the ability to structure their time as they see fit. Some people are happy to be at their desk by 7 am, so that they can take their dog for a long walk mid-day. Some people need frequent breaks but are ready to put in a longer day. Forcing everyone into the same rigid timeframe removes one of the main benefits to employees of working off-site.

Next: Remote Work and Creative Collaboration

About the image: Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop (Public Domain, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)