Workplace culture in the time of coronavirus: A matter of trust

As the Director of leading recruitment agency u&u, Andrea McDonald has had a front-row seat to the changes caused by COVID-19 in workplaces around the country. Ultimately, she says, whether or not organisations have been able to adapt to their new reality has tended to come down to one thing above all else – trust.  

Over the past six months, we’ve seen employers take one of two paths – they’ve either built trust with their employees, or they’ve allowed that trust to erode. 

For the companies that leaned into the moment and made their people feel safe and connected, the past six months have actually enhanced their culture. These are the companies that communicated well; that took every alternative measure they could before cutting jobs; that invested time and energy in daily check-ins and virtual catch-ups, events and experiences. We’re seeing workplaces that feel even more connected now than they did six months ago, because they’ve been through tough times together, and they feel their organisation supported them through it. 

But for the businesses that didn’t do enough – the businesses that didn’t communicate; that didn’t try to do anything different; that made hard cuts right from the start – the last six months have been incredibly damaging. Trust has been lost, and we’ve seen significant staff turnover in those organisations.  

It takes a long time to build trust, and it only takes a few bad decisions to lose it. Once it’s gone, it’s very hard to get that trust back. There’s a long road ahead for those organisations, but what we’ve seen work well are authentic conversations with staff. 

The truth is that this was an experience that none of us had been through before, and there was no rule book for how to deal with it. Nobody knew what the economy was going to look like, and companies that cut heavily probably did so out of fear that they wouldn’t be able to stay afloat. 

To win back their employees’ trust, these organisations are going to have to show staff that they have their back, and consistently behave in ways that make their workforce feel supported. And that’s going to have to start with some honesty and some vulnerability from the leaders at the top. 

Trust goes both ways   

For flexible working arrangements to be feasible moving forward, organisations have to be able to trust that their employees are as productive at home as they would be in the office. 

One of the biggest challenges in the workplace at the moment is measuring performance. In some roles, like sales, it’s easy to tell if someone is being productive while they’re working from home, because their output is so measurable. But a lot of businesses have to do the work now to make sure their job descriptions clearly outline what success looks like. Once you do that, it’s no problem for someone to ask if they can work from home, because you know what their effective outputs are and you can manage their performance anytime, anywhere. 

That enables you to move towards ‘trusted working’, which is a mix of structured flexibility – the person who you know works from home on Tuesday every week – and ad hoc flexibility, where someone can work from home here and there if they want to. 

Similarly, businesses are learning to be more comfortable with making hiring decisions through technology. At the start of all of this, we placed a candidate in a $300,000 p.a. position, and it was all done virtually. Six months in, they still haven’t met their employer face-to-face. That would never have happened before this year, and you need very detailed job briefs and position descriptions for that to work – both to give the candidate a clear idea of what’s expected of them, and to spell out who you are as a business if they can’t come in and see the office in person. 

The workplace of the future 

No two businesses are exactly alike, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to what an office should look like in the wake of the pandemic. What we’re finding is that the ‘right’ approach differs across the market, depending on the industry a business operates in, their staff and their workplace culture. 

Many employment market studies are finding the majority of people want an even split of office-based and remote working, but it’s important for organisations to understand their workforce and determine what flexibility looks like for their people – even within the one company, you might have some roles that allow for very little flexibility and others that could be done completely remotely. 

A common theme is that businesses are analysing their workspaces, surveying their people and looking at new ways of working. For example, they might retain some individual desks for workers who are coming in every day; assign hot desking spaces for those that are only coming in two or three times a week; make sure there are dedicated spaces for virtual meetings; and allocate more space for collaboration and training to facilitate those things as much as possible in the workplace. They might also provide ‘work from anywhere’ kits, with everything an employee needs to be able to work remotely. 

Until this year, most organisations just went along with business as usual and didn’t give much thought to what they could be doing differently. If nothing else, COVID-19 has forced all of us to have these conversations, really think about the spaces we’re working in, and make changes for the better.

Written By

Brisbane Business Hub

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