Founder & CEO, StackRaft
Transitioning from office-based to fully-remote seems to have sparked a crisis of trust.
I speak with many founders who, although report ‘no real loss’ in productivity, struggle with rising animosity within their teams.
Everyone I speak with has taken some measures to lift morale on their teams, whether it’s UberEats coupons or installing home desks. Although helpful, such passive measures do little to address the root issue, that people feel unsure about the future and struggle to adapt to an entirely new lifestyle.
Team leaders struggle with an alarming increase in the ‘time spent in alignment’ and in ‘friction with new tools’. More aggressive measures, such as a ‘keep your video ON in meetings’ had to be implemented, out of the urge to supervise in order to make sure people are truly contributing. That, in turn, led to frustration on the team side, who reported feeling “controlled” or “micromanaged” or "not enough trust".
So the question begs: How can we make people trust each other when they haven’t met face to face in months?
Before we attempt to answer the challenge of how to build trust over Zoom, Loom, Slack, or ‘that new tool in tech town’, let’s try to analyze how trust naturally occurred back in the heyday of the office.
Remember the spontaneous water cooler bonding, the awkward bumping into each other on corridors, the eye contact? Such scenarios were instances of ‘reputational information sharing’ about each other, more commonly known as gossip (Stories is the modern word for it).
People shared stories with each other about customers, investors, managers, stories of character, and competence that were intended to promote behavior, strategies, and work ethic.
All of that sharing combined is what built trust, and looking at it as a whole, now that is what we call culture.
Gossip answered unspoken questions, such as — Who is a friend, and who is a foe? Who has more power and influence in a group? Is it safe or acceptable to say it? How much does it cost, is it affordable? Is it worth the time? What do others get from it? How can I do more of what I’m already doing? and many more…
Having that information flow directly affects organizational productivity in both positive and negative ways. Without those ad hoc interactions, however, that informal information sharing disappears, so what can managers do to fill in the gap?
Here are the top 5 ways to seed assertive actions that can promote cooperation and generosity towards a common goal, shared workplace reality, and organizational mission, while helping to reduce dishonesty and freeloading.
Why it matters: We often take what we know for granted and assume that everyone else knows the same things we do. Well, that is not always the case!
Most critical information between tasks is often held privately by individuals. Knowledge workers choose to share or withhold such information in their interactions with colleagues without the fear of being wrong. When people start holding back information, that can slowly create a culture of secrecy, which in the long term is detrimental to the company’s bottom line.
Chris Heivly, Techstars, said — I have always built trust by over-communicating what is going on. In the void of in-person serendipitous connections, people will naturally fill in their fears, insecurities, doubts. As a leader, you have to work extra hard to fight those inner demons. Remote doubles that. More one on one. More small group connections.
When people feel comfortable sharing their knowledge and when they get rewarded for doing so, that really helps the rest of the team, in particular juniors and new members. This also reduces an individual’s incentive to behave selfishly and encourages camaraderie.
How to do it: Something as simple as a weekly letter highlighting ‘who did what’ and ‘what is the team chasing’ goes a long way in building connectivism in a remote team. Your team members will have something tangible to talk about outside of their daily tasks, they will feel a sense of common purpose and of being in it together.
Here’s a newsletter screenshot of South Park Commons community, where they specifically highlight what every startup founder is working on and create a shared context for people to collaborate with each other.
It takes effort and a human touch to do this right, this isn’t something that can be automated and that’s what makes it truly special.
Why it matters: People want to know where they stand at all times. Call it a survival strategy or an unfortunate quality that we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Humans have a tendency to compare themselves with others.
According to Eugene Wei’s famous essay, people are status seeking monkeys, meaning we seek the most efficient path to maximizing social capital. Just think about social media: we don’t just communicate with each other or share useful information, we become obsessed with status features such as likes/retweets/shares and the rest.
But status structures don’t always make us happy.
Recent research linked low status with depression and further research suggested that self-fulfillment is directly related, not just to our perceived social status, but to how we see ourselves progress in a hierarchy. Being high in the ranks alone does not make us happy, we must also feel that we are moving up in some way. Basically, we feel happiest when we know we are making progress, regardless of the starting point.
At company level, that translates into employees wanting to see that their performance is improving and that we have the chance to move up the ladder, whether that means a better role or simply more responsibilities and rewards. We also want to know how everyone else is doing - who gets paid what, who won the deal and who didn’t, who’s doing well and who’s struggling. Having access to all this information increases trust in each other.
Darren Murph, Head of Remote, Gitlab said - Increasing trust, collaboration, and spontaneity is partly about training a team to use the right tools, and partly about a culture of empowerment from senior leadership.
How to do it: One way of doing it is by communicating that output and productivity are more important than status. Traditionally, it was only the CEO and heads of departments that received public praise. Turn that around and make sure to applaud everybody for their achievements.
Dennis Mortensen, the Founder & CEO of x.ai, does this brilliantly. He doesn’t just send an internal email with shoutouts for high performers, he takes to social media to share updates and applaud his team for their achievements.
Another measure is to move away from a top-down management style to an equal playing field where everyone has a say can really change the future of your company. Make the hierarchy disappear; nobody is a leader, nobody is a follower. This kind of change is not only about keeping employees happy, but also about enhancing performance and benefiting the bottom line.
Gumroad is a great case study of a company that found a system that suits them best and has created its own definition of flat.
Why it matters: Job satisfaction is central to the overall happiness of your team and vice versa - their wellbeing is essential to their job performance. So make sure you are rewarding them consistently, especially in challenging times like we are currently experiencing.
Social rewards can be anything from tangible products like a lunch of your choice, swags, gift for your special someone, to personal experiences such as lunch with the CEO or a personal company-wide recognition letter, to a vast repertoire of verbal and non-verbal behaviors, gestures, and feelings such as a smile, praise, promotion, a thumbs-up, acquisition of good reputation, etc. Be generous!
How to do it: Listen and understand what your employees care about. You may think they want free lunches and dental coverage, but if you observe, you might be surprised about their actual interests. Perhaps one of your employees cares about learning English or getting a degree.
Another crucial point is to understand what the people around them, their families, care about. Reward your employees in a way that is inclusive for their families, something they can do together, that contributes to better family life.
Here’s an example from Beanworks, a Canadian company went out of their way to receive a new joiner at the Airport. The fact that they made the effort to be there in person goes a longer way than having sent a limousine to pick him up.
Why it matters: Teams cannot be inspired if they don’t know what they’re working towards and don’t have explicit goals. Those goals should pose a moderate challenge — too modest and people won’t feel motivated, too difficult and teams may become disheartened.
But most importantly, goals should feel consequential: People have to care about achieving a goal because there will be a reward to be had, whether it’s an extrinsic one, like recognition, pay, and promotions; or an intrinsic one, like a feeling of fulfillment or finding a sense of meaning.
At the same time, people need autonomy to figure out how to get there.
It is all about ‘enabling context’ and ‘creativity’ that can encourage team members to share their diverse knowledge, especially those that may cause disagreement among team members, as clarity comes with conflicting views of everyone in a team context.
How to do it: Don’t just assign tasks using tools like Asana, Jira, Trello, et al, make sure you express clearly why things need doing. One way of achieving that is by making sure your employees understand how the company is doing. This will make them feel part of the success and motivate them to put in more work when the company struggles.
An example, how Sahil, the founder of Gumroad, tweets out the company’s performance indicators, growth, and revenue.
Why it matters: You don’t want your employees to feel afraid about small things such as having overslept. In traditional organizations, people lie because they are afraid of being penalized. The lie may look better than the truth, but trust is lost in that process.
If employees feel like they have to conceal small things, they end up concealing larger things also and this will affect company culture in a negative way.
This is especially difficult as companies scale and becomes more complex. Leaders are less able to delegate decisions clearly, and the number of decision-makers along the thread increases. The reduced cost of communications compounded matters by bringing more people into the flow via email, Slack, and internal knowledge-sharing platforms, without clarifying decision-making authority. The result is too many meetings and email threads with too little high-quality dialogue as executives ricochet between boredom and disengagement, paralysis, and anxiety.
Sarah Judd Welch, the Co-Founder & CEO, Sharehold defines this as "transactional level of belonging" and shared an insightful anecdote belonging to Morra Mele-Aarons, HBR's host for the podcast The Anxious Achiever who said "It’s sort of that difference of being the exhausted new parent and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so tired. My kid isn’t sleeping. Maybe I’m gonna leave early today because I don’t have any meetings.’ ...It’s being able to share what is happening in your life that’s relevant to work. That’s the very basic transactional level of belonging.”
How to do it: Think about your team first and find ways to turn them from employees into brand custodians. When people take their own decision, then they take responsibility and feel less inclined to hide behind small excuses. You have to make your team flatter and agile, and categorize the intensity and impact of decisions with a clear model to think and take action.
For an organization to thrive in a remote environment it should be a network rather than a hierarchy
Every employee should answer with Yes to the following 2 questions:
If you want people to engage and take action, you have to connect to what they care about and how they see themselves.
Darren Murph, from Gitlab shared a strategy they’ve successfully implemented, whereby anyone in the company can nominate another team member for a discretionary bonus, which is based on our values being exemplified. This is a great way of not only rewarding your team, but also pushing your agenda and getting everyone to work together.
Further to these 5 approaches, there are many more assertive methods to build a culture of collective intelligence, trust, co-operation, and mutual respect in a remote team.
Would you like to read more ideas on the tools and tangible application techniques that can be implemented to build trust in a remote team? Comment with your question, or specific challenge in managing remote teams.
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