Professor Scott Schieman was recently quoted on the BBC website in an article entitled, “Why remote work has eroded trust among colleagues”. The article outlines how the ongoing remote work arrangements caused by the pandemic has led to a lack of trust between managers and employees. The article explains that the lack of social interactions among managers and employees, a lack of training for remote management, and pandemic fatigue has all led to distrust in the workplace.
Professor Schieman explains that informal bonds help build trust in both verbal and non verbal ways that are often reinforced as a result of time spent with others and may not be necessarily related to work tasks completed. Professor Schieman states that “We form and sustain social bonds this way, expressing verbal and nonverbal communication in ways that convey understanding, empathy and shared concern. There’s no way endless Zoom calls can replace the depth and quality of in-person human interaction. Professor Schieman adds that mediums such as video conference calls and increased email have limitations that can cause further distrust due to misunderstandings and misinterpretations that simple social cues would have cleared up in a normal workplace setting.
The article suggests several ways to build trust during the pandemic in an effort to create a healthy work culture and promote a productive working team.
Professor Schieman is the Canada Research Chair in the Social Contexts of Health, a Full Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, and Chair of the Department of Sociology, St. George Campus. His research focuses on work/stratification, the work-family interface, stress, and health.
We’ve included an excerpt of the article below. Read the full article on The BBC website here.
When the pandemic triggered mass workplace closures last spring, many companies were unprepared for what turned into an open-ended remote-work arrangement. For some, the extraordinary situation initially prompted a heightened sense of goodwill as workers juggled the demands of family and fine-tuned home-office setups. Yet as we now pass the one-year mark of virtual work, the shaky foundation of many company cultures is cracking to reveal a lack of trust among remote managers and employees.
Under better circumstances, trust begets trust; at the moment, experts are finding that the reverse is true. Without in-person interactions to bolster our professional relationships, there’s more room to make negative – often unfounded – assumptions about our colleagues’ behaviours. And, many supervisors haven’t been trained to manage a team remotely, causing them to fall into the trap of over-monitoring employees, which tends to backfire. All these factors are creating a cycle of virtual workplace distrust that’s exacerbated by pandemic fatigue and the struggle to sustain our mental health amid an extended period of uncertainty.
The dearth of trust isn’t something that will be magically fixed once the pandemic subsides, especially as businesses are considering adopting new models, from hybrid systems to a different kind of work week. The consequences of a culture of distrust are significant – including diminished productivity, innovation and motivation. But there are steps we can take to effectively build and repair trust, even from afar.
Distance breeds distrust
Before the pandemic, the seeds of trust were often planted at work without us even realising it – a greeting in the elevator, post-meeting small talk, complimenting a colleague’s haircut.
“Trust is built by spending time together, not necessarily around work-related tasks,” says Scott Schieman, chair of the department of sociology at the University of Toronto’s St George campus. “We form and sustain social bonds this way, expressing verbal and nonverbal communication in ways that convey understanding, empathy and shared concern. There’s no way endless Zoom calls can replace the depth and quality of in-person human interaction.”
Not only is it harder to build strong connections through video and audio calls, email and instant messages, but misunderstandings are likelier to arise from these mediums due to their limitations. “You might see a supervisor’s or team member’s facial expression on a Zoom meeting and misinterpret or appraise it in a negative way,” says Schieman. “You might be completely misreading it – maybe their kid was in the background doing something that annoyed them. In a physical shared space, you could better read those cues and clear them up.”