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How to build and re-build trust in a remote environment

How curiosity and compassion cultivates trust
How to build and re-build trust in a remote environment

Design Dept.’s Mia Blume joined Abstract’s Scott Welliver for a conversation and Q&A about building trust in a remote environment. This post is based on the actionable advice Mia shared about how we show up for our teammates. Watch the video recording

As we’re settling into a new normal, sheltering in place and working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to remember that those of us who work in tech are privileged — we still have jobs and we’re able to do them remotely. Many people around us have different experiences. In a time like this, the most human thing we can do is lead with curiosity and compassion. Getting those two things right allows us to build trust with our colleagues, coworkers, and reports.  

Building trust in a pandemic

Good communication and mutual alignment is crucial for building trust especially when you’re managing a remote team, but right now, we’re also navigating a global pandemic. More than ever, folks need additional flexibility (which requires trust) to work from home. This isn’t the normal WFH experience, because kids are home and services we rely on are unavailable. And yet, many folks are expected to work the same way (or at least the same amount of hours) and be productive. That just doesn’t work right now. Trust comes from being curious and adaptable about people’s situations. That understanding means everything. When it’s ignored, that’s where leadership runs into issues. The key opportunity here is to redesign your alliance with your team to get to new understanding and alignment.

Getting back into safe mode

Through evolution, we developed a nervous system that is capable of identifying safety. Safety is a little different today than it used to be, but our brain still operates in relatively the same way. Your brain is looking for things like physical safety and social interdependence, both required for survival. Safety is required not only for effective social behaviors but also for our ability to access our higher brain capabilities that allow us to be creative and generative. When we go into a threat state, our body literally reacts — adrenaline and cortisol is released, our heart rate increases, and less oxygen goes to our brains. 

Neuroscientist David Rock created the SCARF model to identify five areas that activate both threat and reward responses in our brain that we rely on for survival: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Often when our brains are in threat mode, we may need more certainty and autonomy. Both of these lead to feelings of control. However, leaders can often try to create more of their own control by doing things that show up as micromanagement, which actually removes certainty and autonomy for their teams — which keep folks in threat mode longer. The faster we can get back into a reward state for these five domains, the more we can feel safe and be more creative. 

Switching off for the day

If your team members are having trouble switching off at the end of the day, first check-in to see if it’s a coping mechanism. While it’s not sustainable, it’s okay if working a little more is serving their needs right now. Then work with them to build boundaries. A mom posted her kid’s current school schedule on social media and it listed “walk to school” and “walk home from school.” 

Obviously they are not walking to or from right now but I loved the idea because it builds in a transition. Adults need the same thing — we need that transition time for the end of our days. It sets boundaries for both you and your colleagues and it creates a ritual that helps you with balance. 

Shoot for 98% transparency

In recent guides and articles, I’ve seen recommendations calling for extreme transparency in this uncertain time. I hate to say it, but for a manager there’s no such thing as 100% transparency. Instead, it’s important to know what can and can’t be shared, and then have a method for evaluating everything in between. 

When I’m not sure whether I should share something with my team, whether it’s information or my own feelings, the best method I’ve worked with is a simple question: “How does this information serve them?” If it doesn’t, then I really re-evaluate my own incentive for sharing. 

What I think people mean when they say extreme transparency is actually communication flow.

What I think people mean when they say extreme transparency is actually “communication flow.” We need to make sure we’re constantly communicating and repeating important information. Setting expectations that we’ll be 100% transparent is actually something that can break trust once people realize it doesn’t exist.

Rebuilding broken trust, remotely

Remote management is good management. Going remote emphasizes or highlights the things that were broken before, whether it’s communication or trust. In a time where we need spaces to be highly vulnerable and flexible, trust is the underlying foundation in which that is built. But if it’s broken it’s hard to get there.

The most direct path to trust is leading through: 

  • Curiosity — understanding people’s experiences
  • Adaptability — being flexible about what people need
  • Compassion — knowing and helping when things aren’t working

If you can’t recognize that it’s not “business as usual” or “productivity as usual” right now it’s going to be really hard to build trust. Now’s the time to lead, not just manage. And typically we all respond positively to true leadership.

Now’s the time to lead, not just manage.

Creating connections, not just Zoom calls

In an office setting, you may spend a lot of time creating relationships in-person with your colleagues — how do you build and maintain these relationships when you’re remote or distributed? 

While we’ve heard many folks having happy hours in the last few weeks, that can exclude some people. It’s important to think about a range of ways to build connections. Some teams are having snack time together and others are finding asynchronous ways to bond, like with care kits and packages. Think about ways you can show that you know each other and relate — and not just on a Zoom call. We could all use some variety. 

At the Design Dept., our advice to managers is to think about thematic one-on-ones. You can choose a different theme each week. One of those themes could be purely about connection — the goal being to connect on a human level. 

Remember to recharge your resilience battery

Resilience is super important to those of us working in tech because everything’s always changing. In fact, change is inevitable. But experiencing a global pandemic and moving to remote work is unprecedented and such a huge change for so many of us. My belief is that we cannot give what we don’t have. If we’re not actually investing in our own resilience it’s hard to be available and supportive with our teams. 

There are four areas of resilience — mindset, wellness, connection, and purpose. Because building resilience varies for everyone, the key is finding the few things that work for you and continuing to practice them so you can “recharge the resilience battery.” Additionally, pausing to reflect is so important. I encourage all leaders to take mental health days, even if they don’t think they need it — it’s a strong signal to others that it’s okay for them to do it as well.

When others are struggling

You may have members of your team right now that are clearly struggling, but are unwilling to be open about it. Many people don’t know how to communicate about how they’re feeling. They just feel bad. If you know that they’re struggling, let them know you’re available to talk. 

But also recognize that things are incredibly complicated right now. People are in threat mode and they may be experiencing grief and trauma. As managers, we’re not trained or equipped to best help people move through what they’re experiencing. One thing all managers should have in their tool kit is a list of resources for your team. Your HR team may already have something like this that you can use. Some topics are well beyond what we as leaders are capable of dealing with — send them to experts and give them the tools they need instead. It's okay to not be your team’s only support system. 

Webinar: Trust-building in a remote environment

Watch a live Q&A between Abstract’s Scott Welliver and Design Dept.’s Mia Blume discuss how remote and distributed teams can cultivate a culture of trust.