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Trust me - I'm an employer! How the tech-enabled return to the workplace will pivot on a basic human concern - trust

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 25, 2020
The success or otherwise of a mass return to the workplace will depend on trust levels between employer and employee as much as on tech solutions. But what is trust?

(Pixabay )

As lockdowns end and countries and companies try to return to some form of normality, trust is going to be a critical factor in the success of the transition.

As a citizen, do you trust the politician who says it’s safe now to get back to work, go shopping, rebuild the economy? Or do you suspect that person has an ulterior, possibly electoral, motive and therefore don’t entirely trust the claim that the worst is over?

As an employee, you may feel you face the same quandary. In the main, essential workers aside, everyone was sent home in March. We didn’t stop work, but we did stop going to the workplace. Three months on and the discussion has now shifted to re-opening office doors.

Again, there’s going to be a question of trust here - your employer says it’s safe to return, that precautions have been put in place and there’s a new health-centric working model at play. But still, are you entirely convinced that the promises of being able to return to the office environment can be done safely?

And be in no doubt, there are doubts. In Europe, research by and StepStone of 18,000 workers finds that attitudes to returning to the workplace vary by country. While 60% of German respondents say they look forward to getting back, 36% of their French counterparts do not. In the UK, even though more than half (54%) of the workforce wants to return to work by the end of June, less than half (43%) say they actually trust their employer when it comes to their safety.

In the US, according to Willis Towers Watson’s latest COVID-19 pulse survey of 542 employers with over 100 employees (representing a total US worker headcount of 5.3 million), more than two-thirds of respondents insist they have already developed re-opening procedures and updated workplace safety protocols.

Nearly three-quarters (71%) say they now have clear policies and procedures on workplace safety and employee hygiene and 68% say they have reviewed/updated workplace safety protocols. Meanwhile 58% reckon to have a strategy/protocols in place concerning the practicalities of how employees can safely return to the workplace, while a further 42% say they’re actively working on this.

That’s important. As Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D, Managing Director and Population Health Leader at Willis Towers Watson, notes:

Safety measures overall will help alleviate employee anxiety about returning to work and also serve to prevent infection; create a healthier, safer workplace; and help boost emotional wellbeing.

Or that's the theory at any rate. 

Tech sector trust

Turning that theory into a practical safe return is the challenge that’s being tackled by a number of tech vendors, such as Salesforce with its offering, which includes collaborating with the likes of HCM software provider Workday on best practice applications and Siemens on developing touch free technologies for a safer workplace. As Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff explains:

It has to be done safely, it’s got to be done responsibly. It’s going to be a complex process and the new normal businesses are going to have a new lifestyle, a new lifestyle of taking people's temperatures and enforcing social distancing standards, a new lifestyle of testing and contact tracing and a new lifestyle of wellness assessments to mitigate interaction of the virus.

But however good the tech, still it comes back to trust at the end of the day. Trust is a theme that Salesforce has pitched as a hardwired part of its corporate DNA for a very long time, notes Benioff:

This pandemic is revealing the culture and the core values of every company….Salesforce has always been deeply committed to serving all of our stakeholders….we have really lived this for two decades and especially over the last 90 days. The foundation of our company is our four core values - trust, customer success, innovation and equality - and first and foremost among these is the trust that we have with all of our stakeholders.

But expectations around trust are evolving and, as with almost everything else at present, discussion inevitably finds its way back to the pandemic crisis. Jean-Pascal Tricoire, CEO of industrial automation and utilities specialist Schneider Electric, makes the point:

We are living in a world which has been modified and which is different due to COVID-19 and due to more tensions happening today in the world. The crisis has created a problem of trust in our societies. People are becoming diffident of each other because of the risk of contagion. People don't want to contact each other. But at the same time, the paradox is that the societies, the countries and the companies that reacted the best [to COVID-19] were the places where people were trusting of each other and letting the solution emerge from the local people in charge of their installations, in charge of their companies and in charge of the society.

He adds:

At Schneider, we think that this crisis is a time where trust and partnership are the biggest foundations of our performance, resilience, efficiency and capacity to be performing again in the future. So let's take what just happened, this very unusual period, as a real good test of trust and partnership to build on the transparency of our relationship that we've developed over the past months and, on the strength of this relationship, build a new foundation for the future.

Fragile trust

That’s an admirable sentiment, but whether it survives the reality of the post-pandemic period is another matter. Trust is a notoriously fragile thing and needs to be nurtured and treated with respect. Even while Salesforce, for example, promotes its ‘back to work safely’ message, its employees have all been told that they can, if they wish, work from home for at least the rest of this year.

Given that winning and maintaining trust is going to be so crucial in the coming months, understanding more about what we mean by the term is important. Rachel Botsman is an author, the first Trust Fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and host of Trust Issues, a podcast that explores the concept of trust through the lenses of popular culture, politics, business and psychology. She argues:

The most important thing for businesses to remember right now is that trust lies in behaviors and culture. During a time of crisis, people become even more discerning around who they give their trust to.

The human response to change and innovation is to want to feel in control of the situation, she advises:

We're being asked to navigate uncertainty. This is really important to remember when we're trying to sell or design or get people to really experience and engage with new systems, new products, new services. When we've created them and we can see the benefits, it's really easy to forget that the way [others are] feeling is that they want to feel in control.

She introduces the idea of the ‘strangely familiar’ as an underlying concept to bear in mind:

What we gravitate to and we tend to trust are things that feel more familiar to us. It's based on this principle called the Law of Familiarity, which is that people actually don't want something entirely new; they want the familiar done differently. This is really interesting when you're trying to get your organization to buy into a big change, particularly during a period of uncertainty. Our tendency is to focus on the benefits and to focus on everything that is new and exciting and innovative around it, whereas what you need to do is to reassure people and focus on what feels familiar to them so they feel more in control.

That sounds very much like the challenge faced by a return to the office. It’s the same office you walked out of 3 months ago, but yet it’s not. You need to take a number and stand in line to get in the lift. Your desk isn’t facing your co-worker any longer. The buffet is gone from the canteen. People are being careful not to stand too close to you. Every action is accompanied by reaching for the nearest hand sanitizer. This is not the same place you left behind back in March.

How to build trust

So how do you, as a worker, respond to this environment that is both familiar and unfamiliar? Can you trust this brave new world? Botsman argues that there is a science behind how and why people decide to give others their trust and she divides it into a number of key traits, starting with capability:

Capability, we divide into two traits. You have competence and reliability. Competence comes down to this feeling that I can depend on you. I can depend on you because you have the skills and the knowledge and the time and the resources to do what you say you're going to do. Reliability comes down to consistency, consistency in the way things behave and operate over time. The reason why consistency is so important is because people then know what to expect.

Then there’s character - both personal and corporate:

During a crisis, what we see is that the businesses, the leaders and the brands that people respond to are often those that really understand the character side of trustworthiness. The character side of trustworthiness comes down to two traits - empathy and integrity. Empathy is more than demonstrating that you care. Empathy is the ability to actually get under the emotion, the state, the way people are feeling, their personal relationship to risk right now, and responding in an appropriate way.

But the most important trait, and where trust really breaks down when it’s not in place, is integrity. There’s a big question for leaders to ask themselves here, says Botsman:

'Is the way I'm behaving, this product that I'm creating, this system that I'm putting in place, does the interest align with the interests of my customers, of my employees, of citizens or other people?’. It is this alignment of interests that is so key when it comes to trust.

My take

I work from home, so the ‘back to the office’ debate is largely academic from my personal point of view. But I know from my immediate circle that opinion is very divided between those who are utterly fed up with working from their kitchens and can’t wait to get back into the office and those who would rather not rush things as they don’t fully trust that the pandemic has really fallen away enough to justify the perceived health risk. And I know of at least 2 people who openly state that they just don’t trust their employer’s assurances that everything will be OK - but that’s indicative of a wider HR problem for the companies in question…

In reality, it is going to be a case of tracking confidence levels over the coming weeks and months. As more and more people do venture back to their corporate desks and live to tell the tale, others will revise their own attitudes. The FOMO factor - fear of missing out - will likely kick in. On the other hand, a second wave of the virus or even a localized uptick could be enough to re-ignite anxieties and stem the returning flow. We just don’t know how it will play out in practice.

Right now, employers need to put in place the right tech - whether from Salesforce, Workday, Siemens or any of the rapidly increasing number of vendors with skin in this game - and communicate its workplace safety measures and protocols to every employee. And those companies and organizations that didn’t focus in the past on developing trusted relationships with their staff (and their customers) will be at a serious disadvantage and will need to add a mindset pivot to their already far-too-lengthy  ‘to do’ recovery list.  Trust me on that.

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