Before 2020, many employers distrusted their people and looked at them with suspicion – but we’ve got to have better eyes than that. The pandemic taught us many lessons, not least of all that we can actually trust our people, and when we do, it makes a meaningful difference to them and our organisation. As Russian writer Anton Chekhov once said, “you must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible”.
In 2018, I wrote in my book about how US company Best Buy began an incredibly progressive experiment in trusting their employees. Best Buy’s 2010 project, based on a result-only work environment, allowed employees to work from anywhere, as long as they got the job done.
The experiment had a big impact on culture at the then struggling retailer. They saw an increase in employee morale, a rise in productivity and a reduction in voluntary turnover. Despite its successes, the programme didn’t last long because it required managers to evolve more than they wanted to.
Many Best Buy managers struggled with their newfound lack of control and resisted the need to blindly trust their people. It’s fair to say although we’ve come a long way in the last 10 years, taking the time to trust our people is still something many managers and organisations struggle with.
If we aren’t letting and empowering our people to make choices of when and how they work, we are saying we don’t have trust in them.
How the pandemic built trust
As of 2019, research revealed that only one in three managers say they trusted their employees. When the pandemic started, many employers cringed at the thought of having to trust their people and let them work ‘out of sight’. Newspapers were full of stories of employers spying on staff and buying secret software to monitor them.
While according to 2021’s Edelman Trust Barometer most employees trusted their employer, I think it’s fair to say the feeling was not mutual. Managers struggled with the lack of control remote working brought, and stories emerged of bosses referring to those working from home as ‘being off work’.
But as the pandemic raged on, the way we worked started to change forever. More than half of employees felt their colleagues were more productive than usual and 90% of companies say they believe their culture improved during Covid-19. The pandemic forced employers to do something the most successful organisations had already grasped – they had to trust their people.
People can be trusted
In one of the world’s largest experiments in trust, researchers went around to 40 countries dropping 17,000 wallets in hotels, theatres and large public places. The researchers suspected that if they put money in the wallets, people would be less likely to return it – even 279 academic economists agreed. The bigger the payoff, the less likely someone would be to return the wallet and money. But that didn’t happen. People were more likely to return the wallet the more money it had in it. In 38 out of 40 countries, people were more likely to hand the wallet in with money in than a wallet without.
One of the ways researchers have found for us to get employees to act trustworthy is to remind them of their interpersonal responsibility. In workplace trust exercises, employees have been found to be far more trustworthy when they were reminded of or signed up to a code of conduct. Just seeing trust at work helps us to be more trustworthy. Similar research shows us that by simply trusting each other, we create more trusting cultures. Most people across the world say they trust others to help those in need, to work together and to treat others with respect.
What amazing things could we achieve for our people and our organisations if we actively chose to trust more?
Trusting employees creates some pretty amazing results
When we compare those organisations with a low trust in their employees to those with high trust, we can see a huge difference. Those organisations who trust their employees show 74% less employee stress, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% higher employee engagement and 40% less burnout.
When we trust our people to work in a way that works best for them, we are giving them autonomy and control – two big parts of employee wellbeing. I believe this makes flexible working far less about policy and much more about our culture. If we aren’t letting and empowering our people to make choices of when and how they work, we are saying we don’t have trust in them. So why did we hire them in the first place? For all the benefits flexible working has shown to employees and employers this last year, none of it could have happened without trust.
Trust is the future of the employee experience
As of May 2021, data on Statista shows 90% of employees now say they would recommend working from home to a friend. A massive 87% say they feel they have the right tools to work from home and 84% say their managers now understand what it takes to operate a team remotely. It’s clear that most employees wish to retain a degree of choice over where and how they work in the future. People want and need to be trusted.
Whatever working pattern your employees choose, this new level of trust must be embraced at work if any of us are to succeed. When we trust our people, we are saying we have confidence in them and their abilities.
Over the last year, trusting employees hasn’t been a choice for many employers – they had to do it. But this makes me think, what other amazing things could we achieve for our people and our organisations if we actively chose to trust more?