Building trust online: how to engage your remote workers
“Trust is like an insurance policy: – it’s an investment you need to make up front, before the need arises.” Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map.
Ask any successful person in a leadership role what is most important to them within their teams and they are likely to answer ‘trust’. Trust is one of those things that you do not notice so much when it is there, but it is obvious when it is absent. You can feel it when it is lacking: in a brainstorming session where the ideas are not flowing or a meeting where no one comes forward with questions. You can see when it is lacking: in employees’ body language and speech, eyes are turned to the ground, pens are tapping and there are pauses in conversation. But when trust is there, everything feels natural. Employees freely share ideas and lean forward in meetings, animated and engaged. Brainstorming sessions have an electric feel, where ideas are bountiful and there seems to be infinite possibilities for new ways in which the company can grow.
The importance of trust in teams is so great that there are entire studies specialising in investigating what role trust plays in teams. Google’s Project Aristotle, had researchers look to uncover the secrets to an effective team. Their findings showed that it is less about who is in the team and more about how the team worked together, with psychological safety (trust being a part of this) being the most important factor. When a team member feels safe in their team, they know they can take risks, ask questions and offer new ideas.
And according to The Great Place to Work report The Business Case for a High Trust Culture, companies with a high-trust culture enjoy increased innovation, higher customer satisfaction and loyalty, increased employee engagement and staff retention and experience more organisational agility. All key things for a thriving business model. It seems safe to say that trust is the driving force of any successful business. Any CEO, business owner or leader should make building trust within their teams a top priority when strategising the culture and values of their company.
Building and maintaining trust in a hybrid or remote company comes with its own challenges. Working remotely is not only here to stay, it is increasing, and quickly becoming one of the most topical subjects about the workplace for companies today. In many ways, employees are now wanting more autonomy. They want more flexibility to organise their work to better enjoy their personal lives. But this can come at the expense of how connected they feel to their company. Without a physical desk space to frequent, there are risks that hybrid and remote employees can quickly feel detached from their company’s culture.
Locus Quest was founded to help remote and hybrid companies engage with their staff. We have been able to experiment with different forms of gamification and online events to help our clients build trust with their employees. We have learned a lot from each experience and have collated the seven most important tips we think will help companies build trust within their employees in an online environment. There are many more ways you can build trust within your company, but we felt these are seven recurring points we have observed. We believe they are worth noting, regardless of what size your company is or what industry you work in. So whether you are a HR manager, recruiter for remote companies or part of a leadership team in a remote or hybrid company, we hope we can help a little by sharing what we have learned along the way.
1. Help employees make connections
This first one is the most important but also the most difficult. Employees are human (obvious, we know, but stick with us). They long for genuine connection and a sense of belonging. However, these connections and this feeling of belonging need to be actively encouraged in company culture. It is not enough to assume that the company can take a passive role and employees will go out of their way to make the connections themselves. It should be a priority and a part of company culture to help your employees make connections and feel a sense of belonging.
It is also about providing experiences for your employees where they can create stories and memories together that they attach to your company culture. It is difficult to create an instant connection with a person via the internet, especially if you have never met in person before. And it is even more tricky to create a connection with a company, especially if you have never even visited the office. But there are ways to engage your staff online so they trust your company and feel a sense of belonging. We have seen connections with the company and between teams and colleagues grow during our events and games.
At Locus Quest, we have been trying new things all the time, both with our clients and within our own processes. We’ll admit, some things work, and some things don’t. But we have found that the key is for companies to have regular events (one or two offline events per year, where possible, then reinforced throughout the year with online events) where their staff can connect with each other, but also the company values.
2. Create a fun and thorough onboarding experience
First impressions count and you only get one chance to make a good one. A fun, informative and friendly onboarding experience is essential to making new employees feel welcome and is the first chance to begin building a trusting relationship. However, onboarding for remote teams can be difficult. It requires a lot of screen time, and often the online onboarding week will begin with an online meeting with a lot of talking heads. While it is important to hear from the leadership team, this can be monotonous and long. There are definitely better ways for a remote introduction of your company to your new staff members.
A quality onboarding experience needs to tick quite a few boxes. It must hold all the newcomers’ attention, teach them about the company values and mission, orient them with their new working environment, introduce them to their team, and ease the transition into their new role.
Onboarding is a team effort and the best thing to do is to make sure that the entire team, especially any newcomer’s direct colleagues understand that onboarding remotely is difficult and that they have a responsibility to their new employee too.
Create a buddy or mentor system. Have remote employees check up on each other regularly. Prepare a digital box of goodies for the new remote employees that contains all the information they need: access to software, manuals and instructions, and the contact details of the people they can approach for help if needed. Employees need to trust that they are supported in their steep learning curve as they settle into their new roles.
There are ways where you can improve your onboarding process to make it more interactive and engaging. Recently we worked with Visma to create a customised onboarding game for their new employees. A game that allows Visma’s newcomers to get to know one another and the Visma values, familiarise themselves with the Visma intranet, learn what Visma does and of course have some fun and share some laughs: all in one place.
3. Be transparent and responsive
It seems like a natural transition to talk about responsiveness and transparency after discussing the onboarding experience. It is vital that staff can feel comfortable asking questions. A workplace built on trust means that employees know that they can make mistakes without the fear of punishment. They trust that they can be wrong and do not feel shy about asking questions if they do not know something. You can make them feel safe doing this by asking questions that allow them to open up about gaps in their knowledge.
A good leadership team that focuses on transparency and responsiveness is key to building trust. They need to lead by example, showing enthusiasm towards company activities, interest in their team’s lives and well being, and demonstrate their own commitment to creating a workplace built on trust, honesty and vulnerability. This is done by sharing their own vulnerabilities. By being honest when they are feeling uncertain about things and admitting when they do not have the answers.
4. Hold regular (focused) meetings
Yes, too many meetings can be detrimental. They can interrupt workflow and focus and chew up valuable time. But when it comes to building trust within remote teams, holding regular focused meetings is key. They keep people aligned and give a sense of consistency and stability. Meetings do not need to be long and a short check up can be enough. They are particularly important for remote workers. It gives remote staff that sense of connection they would otherwise gain from seeing colleagues in the office.
Regular check-ins ensure that nobody falls off the radar. At Locus Quest we find a quick, daily virtual huddle over our morning coffee works best for our operations team. Team check-ins should be held daily. Larger meetings, such as company or department meetings are better held weekly, but they need to be well prepared and fun. It will be different for every company and every department, but regular, focused catch ups are important so that people can come to trust on having a time and place to communicate as a team.
Keep an eye on one other! Have feedback loops, but also designate go-to people who your remote workers know can confide in if they feel they need help, or if they believe others are not doing well. This can be managers, scrum masters, or even coaches. It doesn’t matter who they are, but as long as they are regularly checking in with your remote workers and they know to take any signals seriously if someone approaches them with an issue. In an online environment it is easier to hide, to not let others know you are not doing OK, that you feel lost or don’t feel a connection. It is important to keep these employees on the radar.
5. Be clear with goals and expectations and be willing to adjust.
This is one of the trickier ones. In a trusting work environment you can be assured that people are going to be honest with you about whether they are going to reach goals and milestones. In order to achieve this transparency there needs to be a flow of communication, not just within the team but also across the entire organisation. Sometimes one of the hardest things to figure out in a company is where all the bricks lie. That is, what are the tiers of responsibility across the company? This can fluctuate per project or per year. One level of management may be responsible for decision making for something one year, but not the next.
Continuous communication about what is expected around responsibility will ensure there is a link of trust between employees and the company. A connection that can withstand the fluidity of changing responsibilities over time.
Ultimately employees need to feel confident that the organisation will be honest with them about what is possible and where the company is heading, and what is expected of them to get there. What is the dot on the horizon that the collective are working towards? What are they putting their efforts towards? Will their efforts have an impact? How can they see this impact?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for this. You need to intricately understand the DNA of your company and the people that are working for you, then adjust your communication and expectations around this knowledge. Trust that your teams will be honest with you about reaching their individual goals and milestones.
There is also an extra layer of understanding required: you also need to be aware of the people in your teams, their dynamics and how they work. Some people will overestimate their ability to reach a goal and others will be too cautious. It is one of the hardest things to do to take these fluctuations into account, but the best way to do it is to keep communication flowing throughout all tiers of your company. Lastly, be flexible and willing to adjust if it looks like your teams will not be able to reach their goals.
6. Insist on a healthy work-life balance
Remote team leaders are responsible for their teams’ health and well being. Rest is important and company culture and values should encourage their remote workers to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This begins with the leadership team leading by example. Keep in mind that remote and hybrid workers are at risk of being trapped into digital presenteeism, being constantly online and available. They do not have the advantage of being able to walk out of the office at the end of the day.
Remote and hybrid team managers can build an environment of trust where they have clear expectations around presenteeism. This is achieved by having frequent, honest conversations about what each of you expect of one another. Leadership can give their employees clear directions about which meetings they are expected to be available for or what hours they are expected to be online. Ideally it should be an open discussion where employees feel safe in asking for what flexibility they need for themselves. There needs to be space for trust, where remote workers do not feel like that the amount of time they are online or their speed of responsiveness is a direct reflection of their quality of work. In a trusting work environment, your remote workers can depend on one another to complete their work on time.
Ultimately, leaders of remote and hybrid teams should stress the importance of living balanced lives and doing things that make you happy. As a leader don’t be afraid of your staff doing too little, not being online enough or taking too much time off. Our experience is that most of your employees will work hard and will definitely tick the required number of hours in their contracts. A few people will work too hard and risk getting burned out and very few will do too little and risk to feel disconnected.
7. Celebrate success and build stories together
Build a sense of trust and community amongst your remote and hybrid teams by celebrating successes and using these celebrations to build stories together.
Stories can be built in a hybrid way. For example your company can hold a yearly offline event where all your hybrid or remote employees are able to be together, but then boost this event throughout the year by holding regular online events, or watch an aftermovie. Stories are imperative to cultivating relationships and trust and feeling tied to a particular company.
Companies need stories that define them, online and offline. This can be challenging for remote teams that cannot regularly participate in offline events. Online events need to build or strengthen company stories as much as offline events do, and they need to be tied to the company’s culture. Each event, whether offline or online, is an opportunity to build stories.
Boast about the achievements of your remote or hybrid team. Show off the work they have done and the goals they have achieved. Make a point of celebrating milestones when they are hit. Take a moment to appreciate how far you have come and who is responsible for the company getting there.
Also ensure there is one-on-one acknowledgment and encouragement of small successes and improvements. It is important to celebrate reaching measurable milestones or hitting KPIs, but personal development achievements should also be celebrated.
So there you have it, our seven tips for building trust in remote and hybrid teams. We don’t pretend to know it all, but we feel we are well on our way to finding solutions that can help remote companies engage their staff and build trust within their remote teams. We would be keen to hear what you think are the most important processes you have in your workplace that builds trust. Let us know in the comments below.