Skip to main content

Why Trust Is the Key to Remote Work

I’ve recently given a talk to a company who’s moved from working from home once in a blue moon to doing it every day. Their transition to remote work has been hectic, since it happened so rapidly; from one day to another they’ve changed their ways of working, how they communicated with each other, and their routines. Plus now they’ve got screaming kids in the background, and although I haven’t got any myself, I somehow get this feeling that they don’t make life easier.

In my talk I’ve tried to debunk some myths about remote working, but my hidden agenda included talking up trust and tracking performance. I’ve deemed those two important to talk about because I see business leaders struggle with them.

I’m reading so many articles about companies using surveillance software to track keystrokes, take photos of people working in their homes, and measure productivity by the number of emails sent. In other words, I’m reading about how little trust there is between managers and employees, and how poorly we track productivity.

You need to start with trust

Trust is a two-way street – managers need to give it and employees need to foster it. The problem is that it only works if managers are the first to give it, no strings attached. If you’ve ever been anything else other than a manager (which I assume everyone has), I’m sure you know why that is – employees who don’t feel trusted have no reason to go the extra mile. They’ll gladly earn their paycheck while quietly looking for a new job.

Quote from the NPR article

Quote from a great article on the theme of surveillance at work.

I hate to be the one breaking this to you, but if your company needs to implement surveillance software, you probably won’t make it in the new age of remote work. If you can’t trust your employees to perform, maybe you’re not hiring the right people; that could be the problem. More likely though, being paranoid about employees slacking off is a failure of management.

Watching everyone’s moves just because you suspect someone somewhere might do something wrong is as 1984 as it gets. We don’t hand out tickets to drivers unless we catch them speeding. We don’t fine companies unless we expose their tax evasion. This is the system of trust we’ve built our society on. Once that trust breaks, it’s game over. People switch off. Motivation disappears. Productivity plummets. Not a good place to be.

How do you trust people you don’t trust?

The reason managers feel the need to surveil every move their people make is because working remotely has taken something away from them – the capability of strolling through the office and seeing people work. When that’s the only way you get reassurance, you’ll want to continue doing it even when the conditions have changed. But that’s like using a light jacket in a Filipino monsoon just because it works in a London drizzle. It makes you look dumb, and even worse, it’s not going to work. You’re using the wrong tool.

We’ve come to accept that “butts in seats” means employees are productive, but performance shouldn’t have been assessed this way in the first place. The reason it’s become so popular is because it’s trackable across all departments. But designers and sales people shouldn’t be judged by the same metric as accountants and engineers. “Butts in seats” is lazy and inefficient, just like “the amount of emails sent” and “the number of keystrokes in a day” are.

Which brings me to my point: the right way of tracking performance is to consider how each department is providing value to the business. Unless you’re a manager at McDonald’s, your people don’t sell you their time; they sell their expertise.

It doesn’t matter how many hours they work, but accountants need to file taxes on time; engineers need to ship clean code at a good velocity; sales people need to bring new clients; designers need to solve problems. It’s not about the time people spend on a task; it’s about their output.

As managers and leaders it’s your task to figure out what everyone does for the business, if you don’t already know. Only then are you tracking performance correctly.

Where it all comes together for remote work

It’s about trust and metrics – companies need to trust their employees and employees need to feel they are being measured fairly. This is the key to remote work.

Don’t be fooled by the short-term boost in productivity you’re getting by watching everyone’s moves. It’s only going to last for a short time, and it will be out of fear rather than internal motivation. That’s no way to build a sustainable company. Be sure that while you’re looking at those numbers thinking your business is doing well, most of your good employees are already one foot out the door. Just ask Jive Software.