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Have faith: The importance of trust in a remote working relationship

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Some thinking from communication and collaboration experts Arkadin on how trust is forged and maintained in today’s virtual workplace.

Management used to be about one thing: control.

From the pyramids of Egypt to the sweatshops of Dickensian London, the working man or woman (and – all too frequently – child) was seen as a commodity. A unit of labour. These “units” were largely interchangeable, and if one became “inoperational” (by falling off the pyramid or into the tar pit) he or she could soon be replaced.

It’s fair to say that in those days the average “employee” didn’t enjoy much leeway in terms of discussing personal development journeys with their boss. And that’s why – beyond the cost to human rights – the control paradigm is subpar. Treating workers as interchangeable units is inefficient. When workers are invested and motivated in improving the business instead, the need for control goes away. And something far better replaces it: trust.

Workers are individuals, with different skills and approaches. Competitive advantage today is built by making the best use of individual talents, not treating your workers as commodities. When you align the goals of the business with those of your workers, you’re empowering them to improve and innovate in the best way possible – because they’ll improve their own lives, too. You’re taking off the chains and letting them shine.

It’s the added value of a bright employee sharing an idea that saves everyone a minute a day. The profit boost of a sales exec adding the right notes to a cold prospect. The project deadline that was met because everyone felt good about the team plan.

Most of these improvements you’ll never even know about…but they exist. And they’re what differentiate a forward-looking company from a moribund one.

In areas like remote working, replacing control with trust has been one of the unsung themes of successful software rollouts. But there are still areas of business – possibly including your business – where managers exert too much control over workers, whether they’re inside or outside the office. Areas where fostering greater trust would pay higher returns.

So let’s look at three of those areas – and see how the right software for communication and collaboration, used in the right way, can turn oppressive control into life-affirming trust.

1. Substitute control with communication

It’s surprising how many businesses manage the workers of today with the metrics of the past. Why is “call handling time”, for example, still a major metric in call centres, when that’s where so many customer perceptions are at stake? The right metric would be how well they solved the customer’s problem, not how long it took.

What’s more, too much control leads to workers gaming the system. If people’s livelihoods depend on producing a target number of lines of code, or a set number of calls an hour, they’ll find ways to produce those numbers, whether or not the impact on the business is positive.

The trust answer: don’t control – communicate.

If you’re worried your remote workers aren’t spending eight hours a day at their laptops, ask yourself whether that’s the right thing to measure them by. If a coder has trouble with that 9AM start, ask him whether he’s more productive in the hours of darkness. If a key worker keeps leaving early, ask whether flexible hours could help with childcare issues.

91% of workers say they’re more productive when they’re able to work remotely.

For today’s business, these ‘big picture’ metrics are the whole point of remote working. It’s not a worker benefit; it’s a source of productivity. So use technology to talk and share, not command and corral. Turn the attendance check into a friendly five-minute conference call. Time-shift that teamwork session with a collaborative document. Deliver that training on your staff’s schedule, with a recording they can stream at leisure. Flexible communication is where trust is built.

2. Enable interactions, not meetings

Your employees may dutifully turn up to every conference call and work-in-progress meeting the boss sets. But how often are they talking to each other – initiating those calls and meetings themselves?

Research demonstrates that chance encounters in the corridor, impromptu meetings between two or three people, and quick phone calls can solve a great many problems typically addressed in the meeting room – and solve them faster.

TED speakers believe the Fortune 500 wastes $75 billion in unproductive meetings.

The trust answer: let the workers decide between themselves.

When you adopt conferencing and collaboration software, don’t stipulate who can use it and how; you’re just recreating the same us-and-them situation of ancient Giza. Let everyone collaborate whenever they want, with whoever they need to, whether they’re separated by a plywood wall or 3,000 miles of ocean. Unified communications bring multiple channels together in one place; let people use it in accordance with their whims and preferences, and you’ll see productivity shoot up.

3. Manager, manage thyself!

In “The Four-Hour Work Week”, author Tim Ferris describes how he saved himself the equivalent of a full-time job…simply by empowering workers to solve any problem that came up, any way they wanted, as long as it cost less than 100 US dollars.

It worked brilliantly – so brilliantly he soon increased the amount to $400. His workers weren’t the problem; he was the problem, thinking that his boss status meant only he could make spending decisions. A key thing to observe here is that Ferris stated very clearly that any mistakes workers made would be celebrated as learning opportunities, not punished.

Remote workers are healthier, taking fewer sick days – contributing to 13% higher output.

Hence our third trust answer: think mentoring more than managing.

Trust empowers workers to feel better about themselves, make faster decisions, and take responsibility for what they do. And they work harder – research shows an average of four extra hours a week were logged by remote workers. (Perhaps that’s where Tim’s time went.) Technology can maintain high-bandwidth connections between those people. But before it can happen, you’ve got to give them permission to perform. Be a mentor, not a manager.

Too often, technology is used to build bonds of control, rather than trust. But if you put trust front and centre – using communication and collaboration software to foster human relationships, rather than as a means of watching from above – your workforce will be happier, empowered, and more productive. Because they’ll feel part of something bigger.

It also lets you take a hard look at whether your own attitude to the remote working revolution is helping or hampering. Because if you can only trust an employee when he’s in a certain place at a certain time, how much is that trust really worth? To empower your workers with remote and flexible communication and collaboration options, talk to Arkadin.

Takeaways:

  • Technology is often used for control, but it’s better when used for trust
  • Trust is built through the warmth of personal relationships
  • Empower your workers, and you’re giving them a stake in your business outcomes
  • Management these days should be more about mentoring than controlling
  • Don’t think of it as losing control, think of it as enabling productivity

Equip your flexible workforce with market-leading tools and systems to optimise your efficiency and data security. Download The Connected Business: Managing Beyond the Remote Workforce.

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About the author

Ryan O'Reilly is a progressive, visionary leader with 16 years operational experience of managing technical departments, deploying carrier grade IT and Telecommunication infrastructures and delivering world class hosting solutions. Ryan has proven success in defining operational and technical rollout strategies and leading high performance teams to exceed company objectives in highly pressurised, high pace working environments.

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