Trust. The heart of flex and hybrid.

I have been thinking about trust. 

Trust is at the heart of flexible working.  It is the very opposite of presenteeism.  I put it at the centre of my hybrid model because that is what I believe matters more than anything.  More than policies or training or the tech we provide to facilitate it.

Model: The Work Consultancy

Presenteeism is performed by individuals, but driven by organisational culture and a certain management style.  Unfortunately it is pervasive, and too often our people systems and processes reinforce it.  Unconscious bias plays a part too.  Research tells us that when we see someone working, especially if we see them working long hours, regardless of whether we even know what they are doing we ascribe certain traits to them. Traits like committed and motivated.  In working long hours we are fulfilling the ideal worker fallacy.  As employees, we soon learn if, within a particular organisation, the key to recognition and opportunity is being seen doing stuff regardless of whether it is good stuff.   

When someone works outside of the office, 9-5 (ish) default we need to trust them.  Before the pandemic, the oh so typical answer to ‘can people work flexibly?’ was ‘how will I know they are working?’.  Trust was in short supply.  The inbuilt assumption that given the opportunity everyone would be watching back to back episodes of Homes Under the Hammer or having an afternoon nap. 

The so-called ‘great homeworking experiment’ has exposed that weakness and inaccuracy of that viewpoint.  We know that many people feel that they are at least if not more productive at home.  There has been no tidal wave of skiving.  But does this mean we now trust?

What does trust really mean, in the context of flexible and hybrid working?  In aiming to answer my own question, I went back to the dictionary definition of trust: a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. Belief in reliability. That sounds about right.

At an individual level, flexible working trust looks like this.

  • I don’t need to monitor your hours
  • I can’t see you but I believe that you are at your desk or doing something useful
  • I won’t check up on you
  • I will set you objectives and believe that you will complete them
  • I won’t demand progress updates unless I need them
  • I will not check that you are online for no reason
  • I know you will do what you will say you will do, even if I can’t see you, or you aren’t in the office when you do it
  • I don’t need you to work at the same time, or in the same place, that I work
  • I recognise that not everyone likes to work the same way that I work
  • I will get out of your way and let you get on with it.

It is often said that people need to earn trust. That it is built over time when we get to know someone and our relationship becomes established.  In the Trust Equation, trust is seen as a combination of factors; reliability, credibility, intimacy (in terms of feeling safe and secure) and the extent of our own self-orientation (the greater it is the less trustworthy we seem).   Another approach is Ken Blanchard’s ABCD model. Here, trustworthy people are able, believable, connected, dependable.  In ‘5 dimensions of trust in sales’, trust is seen as related to expertise and likeability. 

What do all these models, and that old adage, have in common?  The onus is on the individual to prove themselves trustworthy.  To demonstrate certain traits before they can be trusted. This reminds me a little of the current UK law on flexible working.  You might be able to have it, but only after we have taken 26 weeks to decide that we like the cut of your jib.   There is no presumption of trust within. It is not the starting point.  

It is easier to talk about building trust than to actually do it.  It is perhaps also easier to identify what destroys trust, or signals its absence.  Micro management, overbearing supervision, demands for physical presence, checking up rather than checking in, an ever present requirement for synchronous work. None of these things say ‘you are trusted’.

Trust demands more of us.  It requires us to let go.  To step back.  To get comfortable with not knowing or controlling all of the things.  To not require someone to prove themselves first.  Above all, it requires us to reject so many of the structures and traditions of work.  So much of how we work today has its roots in the factory system and in the principles of Taylorism.  In there too, a belief in built that people aren’t to be trusted, they will skive if we aren’t watching, the clock is what counts. This will be the task of people managers in the months to come. Some will succeed. Others will find this an impossible shift.

At an organisational level, trust looks a little like this. Deloitte’s statement this week that there will be no set office days, only personal choice. Choice and autonomy are linked to motivation. The lack of them, to stress. Choice on where to work and when to work is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of trust.

If trust is so important to the success of flexible working and hybrid, how do we actually achieve that?  We can provide choice and autonomy. Maximum flexibility. This is of course an option that will not necessarily be available to everyone, depending on the organisation or the work to be undertaken.

In thinking about trust, there are no simply answers, only questions.

What does trust mean to you, in your context?

If you have high trust in your organisation, what does that look like in practice? What would you see, feel, hear or know? What would employees say or believe?

Do your managers treat people like they trust them?

Do your policies, processes and systems support or signal trust?

How much choice do you provide?

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