The pandemic forced employees apart – and worsened an existing HR issue: Employee trust is painfully low.
Seventy percent of employees don’t trust management in their organizations, a Blind study found.
On the surface, you might be OK with a certain level of distrust between employees and management – after all, a little friction can be expected anywhere. But, beyond some contention in the office, it’s dangerous for business. Companies where employees feel their bosses are open and honest consistently outperform the competition, a Korn Ferry study found.
It’s vital for HR leaders and front-line managers to build (or rebuild) employee trust, especially since remote work has made trust even more difficult to preserve.
“Front-line managers that … can create a safe space where other team members can share will quickly build trust with their employees,” says workplace relationship expert Alla Weinberg, who is author of Culture of Safety: Building an environment for people to think, collaborate, and innovate.
As HR leaders, you’ll want to address both sides of safety – physical and mental. On-site employees might be more concerned about physical safety. And remote employees might struggle more with mental safety. But both are important to all employees.
Physical safety builds trust
“Physical safety is most important to employees right now because of the way our brain is wired,” Weinberg says. “The first thing that our brain checks with every bit of information is if our body is in any physical danger. This is why we can jump out of the way of an oncoming car before we even consciously see it.”
Physical safety is important because if employees don’t feel safe (in a pandemic or otherwise), they can’t think at 100%. They just aren’t as productive as they normally would be.
Weinberg suggest these strategies to rebuild employee trust with physical safety:
Get employees involved in boundary-making
As employees come back on site to work again, get them involved in establishing their own boundaries. Ask them to create two simple lists – 1) what’s OK, and 2) what’s not OK with me.
For instance, some employees may be OK eating socially distanced in a communal break room. Others may not want anyone within 10 feet of their work area, regardless of mask wearing.
Then HR and front-line managers can talk with teams to help everyone understand and respect each other’s boundaries.
Build the new norms
With employees’ preferences and CDC guidelines for employers in mind, HR will want to develop a list of behavioral expectations. More importantly, give employees the infrastructure to live by and support the new norms.
For example, add markings on floors to indicate 6-feet spacing. Provide face masks and any other PPE you expect employees to wear.
You might even provide employees with rubber bracelets that indicate their COVID comfort levels. Red means “Keep your distance.” Yellow means, “I’m OK with elbows.” Green means, “I’ll shake hands and high five.”
Give some leeway
Weinberg also suggests assuring employees the highest level of safety. Allow employees to leave or work offsite if they feel physically unsafe.
The good news is it’s not likely there will be a mass exodus. “People are more likely to stay and engage in the work if they know they have the option to leave,” Weinberg says.
Mental safety builds trust, too
Employees who’ve been working remotely for a year still face challenges. That’s proven by the rise in mental health benefit use. As their stress and burnout rate increased, their trust in the company – and even the boss – decreased.
HR leaders and front-line managers want to take steps to help ease all employee stress and rebuild trust. You want to make them feel safe and appreciated.
Here are three tactics:
“It’s still important for managers to ask remote employees to create boundary lists,” Weinberg says. “Although they may look different than on-site employees’ lists.”
For instance, remote employees’ ideal boundaries might include keeping the camera off during meetings. Or they might ask to be excused from responding to work email after 6 p.m.
“Just having these conversations with team members will be the most impactful action managers can take to help everybody feel safe,” Weinberg says. If managers can reasonably make employees’ boundaries happen, even better.
Communicate regularly, honestly
This goes for both remote and on-site employees. Front-line managers want to give them regular time and space to talk about their workload and ability to handle it.
Weinberg suggests a “vulnerable conversation.”
“So what would a vulnerable conversation sound like?” Weinberg asks. “A front-line manager could say, ‘I’ve been feeling exhausted for months now and I just can’t seem to shake it. I’m really having a hard time juggling my home life and work life, and feel like I am always on. I know that I am not thinking clearly everyday and that’s okay. I am doing the best I can right now.'”
An honest statement like that opens it up for an employee to share similar feelings. Then the two can work on safe solutions to mental well-being.
Be more transparent
One of the best ways to build trust in a workplace – and make employees feel safe – is through transparency. Keep employees up to date on the good, bad and ugly.
There’s a balance. People understand things aren’t peaches and cream in business these days. Employees at every level experience the turbulence whether you admit it or not.
One way to become more transparent across the organization is through daily Tiered Meetings. The idea is to handle problems at the lowest level – and only the biggest issues get kicked upstairs. It keeps nearly everyone in the organization fully aware of triumphs and challenges.
Example: Front-line teams meet with their manager at 8. Managers meet at 9. Division leads meet at 10. VPs and above meet at 11. Issues that aren’t resolved and information that isn’t shared by noon gets attention from the top tier that day. Then they report results back to the team in time for the next day’s 8 a.m. front-line meeting. That’s when employees can give feedback, share concerns and celebrate wins!