Four Ways to Build a Culture of Honesty and Avoid ‘Productivity Paranoia’

A lack of trust between colleagues and managers in remote and hybrid environments can damage workplace culture and morale.

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  • It was inevitable that the rise in working from home would create tensions inside many organizations. But it didn’t have to be quite this bad. According to a new survey by Envoy, less than a quarter (24%) of employees trust their colleagues to get work done remotely.

    One of the reasons, Envoy said, may be “productivity paranoia.” Microsoft has defined the term as a scenario in remote and hybrid work environments “where leaders fear that productivity is being lost due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased.” It’s possible that employees are sensing this paranoia in their managers and mirroring it themselves.

    The distrust can go both ways. Managers complain that they can’t keep tabs on their direct reports who work remotely. Yet many remote workers worry that their in-office counterparts try to use proximity bias to build closer relationships with higher-ups, gaining an edge for opportunities and promotions.

    Research shows that distrust damages workplaces, whereas high levels of trust fuel engagement and motivation while reducing absenteeism.

    Throughout the years that I’ve spent training organizations in spotting lies and eliciting the truth, I’ve helped businesses develop cultures that breed both trust and honesty in a virtuous circle: The more trusting the environment becomes, the more reliable and productive its participants become. Since the pandemic began three years ago, I’ve seen what it takes for organizations to forge the right path in this new era. Here are four steps any manager can take to increase trust and honesty in a remote or hybrid work environment.

    Assess Employees’ Individual Environments

    Remote workers have largely been lumped together as a group, but they are not monolithic. Some are proactive and independent in planning their work and are comfortable not just communicating but sometimes overcommunicating their concerns and progress to their managers — which working from home often demands. Others struggle without the support of colleagues and managers alongside them or have difficulty focusing when surrounded by loud family members or roommates.

    Managers should prioritize understanding how each employee does their best work. At regular intervals throughout the year, check in to see how they are doing in their work environment and whether changes need to be made. When hiring someone who has worked from home previously and is interested in doing so with your organization, ask them about their success in such an arrangement in the past. And when onboarding new employees, set clear expectations for what they’re expected to get done, whether remote or in the office, along with the core working hours and when employees should be available to others.

    When managers clearly outline their expectations for all employees, they have more trust in their managers and more faith in their colleagues to be productive.

    Simulate Natural Interactions — Lots of Them

    People are accustomed to developing connections with each other in person, and those connections breed trust. A 2022 study noted that video meetings lack the dynamics people are used to, including “life-size presence in a shared space,” as well as “the ability to observe what attendees are looking at, to see attendees’ body language and gestures, to have side conversations,” and to understand the social dynamics of the group.

    Companies need to enable more virtual interactions among employees that simulate in-person interactions and build similar feelings of trust. This may entail offering better videoconferencing options and equipment so that feeds don’t freeze and participants can make use of the latest feature upgrades. It also means developing robust virtual versions of events that are typically held in person, such as mentoring programs, town halls, and social events, to help employees develop and deepen relationships from a distance.

    Companies need to enable more virtual interactions among employees that simulate in-person interactions and build similar feelings of trust.

    All of this requires ensuring that everyone is up to speed on how to use remote-working technology effectively. Many won’t admit that they don’t know how to create breakout rooms or polls, for example. Develop a list of required remote skills and make sure everyone is up to speed. In some cases, businesses may need to invest in improving employees’ home setups.

    Also, don’t give up entirely on phone calls. A group of researchers recently reported that in one-on-one audio-only conversations, people can “pick up cues through the rhythm of the voice, the way it rises and falls, which can help us feel safe, build trust,” and experience greater feelings of warmth.

    Be Transparent About Monitoring

    By one estimate, nearly 8 in 10 employers use remote-monitoring software to track employees’ productivity. These tools raise ethical questions and can backfire, increasing stress and damaging performance.

    But I’ve found that the solution is not for organizations to swear off all monitoring; it’s to demonstrate the same honesty that they expect from staff members. In a Gartner survey, a whopping 41% of workers reported that their organization hasn’t told them what data is collected, why it’s collected, or how it’s used. This secrecy must stop.

    When businesses are open about how and why they monitor remote and onsite employees, people develop greater trust in one another. In-office employees feel that the company is making sure remote workers are just as accountable as they are, so they don’t need to be suspicious. Remote workers get to see that the company is tracking their successes and those of their in-office counterparts, reducing the chances that their hard work will be unrecognized.

    Train Team Members in Getting to the Truth

    Businesses also face an influence outside their control: News reports about liars in the professional world, whether politicians or business leaders, understandably make people wary. Employees naturally want to protect themselves, and their businesses, against liars in their midst.

    When I train teams, I teach them specific techniques for spotting patterns of deception and leading people to be honest. For example, they learn how to preface questions in ways that neutralize emotional responses so that people are more apt to simply state the facts rather than become defensive and try to obfuscate. They also learn to track how often people deflect a conversation when a certain topic comes up, and to take note of subtle shifts in facial expressions or body language.

    One of the biggest benefits of this is demystification. People develop confidence in their ability to spot deception and are less likely to worry that someone is pulling the wool over their eyes.

    When organizations take these steps, they build a culture of trust, leaving everyone less likely to be paranoid. They create a better, more satisfying, more productive experience for staff members throughout the organization, no matter where they work.



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