As offices reopen, what skills do leaders need to develop to maintain a culture of trust?
Communication is key to maintaining trust as the nation returns to their offices, says Richard Horner.
Many companies are now making plans to reopen offices. But for employees to feel safe to return, even part-time, they need to be confident that their employer has their safety and best interests at heart. This means that business leaders must do everything in their power to build a culture of trust.
During the period of widespread remote working, trust has been critical: without being able to physically see their employees, employers have had to trust that they're doing their job. In return, employees have looked to their employer for reassurance and reliable information.
The Edelman Trust Barometer Coronavirus Special Report found that employer communications were considered to be the most credible source of information on the pandemic, garnering more trust than both government websites and traditional media.
With flexible working here to stay, business leaders must keep finding ways of fostering trust remotely as well as in-person. As we move forward, business leaders will need to ensure that managers receive the soft-skills training they need to foster trust with their teams and lead them effectively through difficult times.
Staying in touch
During times of uncertainty, I’ve noticed that there is a demand for communication to be even more frequent. In the absence of impromptu catch-ups around the office, business leaders and HR managers have had to find new ways of keeping their workforce updated.
Strong communication is not only about updating employees on company plans but addressing their concerns.
For me, clear communication is vital when it comes to developing return to office plans. The Edelman Coronavirus special report revealed that employees generally prefer written channels for information about the pandemic: 48% of people would prefer to receive updates via email or newsletter and 33% would like posts on the company website, as opposed to virtual conferences (23%).
It is important that any company updates provide a sense of knowledge and security, rather than adding to a sense of panic. Strong communication is not only about updating employees on company plans but addressing their concerns.
Making everyone feel heard
Even with offices reopening, restrictions on workspace capacity will make the opportunity for whole-company meetings unlikely in the near future. Business leaders will face the challenge of maintaining effective communication when their workforce is split between the office and working remotely, so methods of communication that we’ve all seen developed during lockdown will need to continue.
For better or worse, video conferencing is here to stay. Leaders and employees have had to develop the necessary best practice skills to conduct productive video calls and overcome the hurdle of not being able to read people’s body language, which for me has been one of the biggest challenges.
While some people will find video calls the most convenient method of communication, others may feel more comfortable arranging a meet-up out of the house.
Whatever form these meetings take, it is the job of the manager to make their team members feel empowered. While it is important to make sure meetings are effectively structured, enforcing strict agendas can restrict the natural flow of conversation.
I find that one way to promote a more equal conversation, and perhaps encourage more creativity, may be to try implementing a looser framework.
Training for holistic management
As workforces begin to return to the office, it is important to ensure that employees' feel that their wellbeing is the top priority. Training is key to help leaders and managers deliver an increased level of support at a time when work-life balances are out of kilter.
For most of us, home working has quickly become the ‘new normal’ and the return to the office is likely to evoke mixed emotions. Though many will be looking forward to returning to the office, it will be a daunting and potentially rather draining experience. Acclimatising to the new, socially distant office environment means that employees will face different practical challenges.
Training can help to ensure that business leaders recognise the individual needs of their workers, and address these sympathetically. Managers should be encouraged to check in with their teams regularly, enquiring about what can be done to support them through this transition. Wellbeing training will help leaders to recognise when an employee is struggling and make sure they receive the appropriate support.
Committing to communication
As offices cautiously and partially reopen, we will face different challenges. But employers who have maintained a strong communication with their employees during lockdown may have actually increased trust within their workforce.
I believe that if businesses now focus on managing the transition sensitively and communicating the changes well, this will continue to bring benefits, such as increased employee advocacy, loyalty and engagement. During a period of great flux and uncertainty, employers can provide a sense of stability.
About the author
Richard Horner is Head of Individual Protection at MetLife UK.