Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Why working remotely breaks down trust in our teams and how to counter this

“Out of sight, out of mind”, as the proverb goes. It’s unlikely that the person who first formulated it was thinking about remote work. But, as it is often the case with wise sayings, this one is absolutely spot on. At the heart of this proverb lies the idea that human communication works best when it is just that – human. That is, in the presence of another human being – “face-to-face”.

This is what I tried to explain to Stephen* – manager of a team of 28 engineers in the Bulgarian office of a medium-sized Italian software company. At the time we met, he was feeling confused (and slightly angry).

When the pandemic had hit, all company employees had begun working fully remotely. Over the next two years, their business had grown – and so had his team – 13 new engineers had joined. In the interviews, every one of them had performed superbly – both in terms of skills and attitude. However, Stephen shared that a month or two into the work process, “something had happened to them”. They were coming into conflict with more senior employees, they were making simple mistakes out of carelessness, and the moment the work day had ended, they’d turn off their phones without even caring if something urgent had come up.

After the first few instances, Stephen thought that he and his recruitment team had made a mistake and had appointed the wrong people. However, when 11 of the new employees began to exhibit similar behaviour, he realised that the problem lies elsewhere.

Stephen’s case is not unique – according to a Harvard Business Review study, 40% of managers globally experience serious difficulties in managing teams that work remotely. The reasons for this are varied, but ultimately it comes down to one main thing – trust.

Trust is the single most important factor in building working teams and organisations – a team cannot exist without trust. This is perhaps the best-established fact in organisational theory. Hundreds of international studies in the last 50 years have identified a direct correlation between trust and commitment, motivation, the ability to learn, the desire to share information, mutual assistance, and at least a dozen other behaviours and attitudes without which teamwork is rendered impossible.

How working remotely undermines trust

Stephen, like most managers, had understood these processes. What he hadn’t realised, however, was the extent to which remote work affects trust negatively.

To be able to answer this question, we need to understand what trust really is. Essentially, it is a state of psychological safety – to trust someone means to be willing to take a risk, to be vulnerable with them. To choose be so with someone, however, you must be convinced of four things (the four trust factors):

First, that the person is capable – otherwise they will fail youwith their incompetence. Second, that the person is honest – otherwise they will betray you. Third, that the person is reliable – otherwise you can’t depend on their support. And fourth, that the person is connected – i.e. that they care about you. If any of the four gives way, the sense of psychological safety is broken and trust plummets.

And this is where the features of remote work come into play – the lack of face-to-face contact with the people we work with removes the human context, i.e., breaks the “connection” factor.

“Trust in a team is built when we spend time together, but not just focused on work tasks,” Scott Schiemann, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, wrote for the BBC , “Human beings form and maintain social relationships in real life, through verbal and non-verbal communication, by which they convey understanding, empathy, and concern for one another. There is no way endless Zoom meetings can replace the depth and quality of personal human interaction.

When connection breaks down (i.e., the sense that people’s colleagues “care” about them), the other factors of trust gradually begin to break down as well. If we lose the human context of our colleagues’ behaviour, we tend to interpret their actions or words as an attack on us, or as a sign of their incompetence, insincerity, or untrustworthiness.

This is exactly what our survey of Stephen’s team showed. The trust measurement tools we applied showed high levels of mistrust between “old” and “new” team members. The “old” trusted each other, but didn’t trust the “new”, and the “new” didn’t trust anyone.

What was interesting (and surprising to Stephen) was that a large part of the team, both “old” and “new” employees, shared that they felt that their manager did not trust them. Stephen’s results in the areas of connection and task delegation were very low. People claimed that he didn’t listen to them carefully, didn’t respect their opinions, and was very petty in his control, which they saw as a clear signal that he didn’t trust their ability to do their jobs on their own.

Stephen was very surprised – he had not realised that the team’s transition to remote work had made him very anxious that he wouldn’t be able to cope. This had imperceptibly turned him into a micromanager – something he had previously promised himself would never happen. In fact, the first person in whom trust was broken by remote work was him – not seeing his old colleagues and not knowing the new ones, therefore having no context for their behaviour, had put him in a defensive and controlling position most of the time.

This sent signals of mistrust to the team which affected their own trust levels and created a vicious circle. Meanwhile, the lack of social time spent face-to-face outside of work (one two-day team building event a year is not enough!), had reinforced the lack of context and had increased everyone’s mistrust of others.

After recognising the problem, our recommendations to Stephen were the recommendations we give to most leaders of remote teams:

First, put the topic of trust “on the table” – discuss with the team what undermines trust and ask them about your behaviour specifically . We helped Stephen do this in a series of specially-designed sessions (face-to-face, of course) in which many things were said that would otherwise have fanned the flames of mistrust.

Second, create more opportunities for personal contact outside of work – informal gatherings, birthday parties, and side activities (cinema, theatre). Stephen got his entire team involved and they themselves developed a plan for how they would maintain the personal connection with each other during the year.

Third, give people a chance to talk about themselves. Stephen’s team decided to give one person the opportunity to share a story of a failure and a lesson learned every Monday and it quickly became everyone’s favourite time of the week.

Fourth, train yourself and your team to be sensitive to trust, watch out for fractures and don’t delay in pointing them out when you recognise them.

* *Names and story details have been changed to maintain confidentiality