Dr Kiran Chitta
Agile and flexible working are built on a foundation of trust
“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” ― Stephen R. Covey, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change’
Virtual working is currently an involuntary default pattern for millions. People are talking everywhere about deurbanization, changing how we live and work, treating this crisis as a leap towards greater home working. Data from hundreds of rapid surveys of people working from home around the world fuels the conversation. But how we design and deploy surveys, then interpret and use survey data is important.
In this post I reflect on the role of trust and social capital in the future world of work. Before making long-term decisions on how we work, there is much to be gained from applying what we already know. There is a mountain of data already on how people feel about their work.
The level of trust employees had in employers, and wellbeing at work were already in question before C-19, certainly if you looked at UK and US data. In office environments some of this was down to senseless bureaucracy, office politics, meeting overload, overcrowded open-plan offices, sleep deprivation, and long, cramped unreliable commutes on trains. Right now, could proving you can be productive at home, be just the least-worst option, rather than an actual preference?
It is clear to me looking at the plethora of surveys currently under way, that for many, going ‘back to work’ means going back to all that stuff the majority of working people do not miss. No one deliberately designs workplaces or work to be toxic to your mental and physical health. In some organizations and workplaces, it just ends up like that, for all sorts of reasons.
There is a tsunami of new ‘research’ being circulated right now on how work is changing, suggesting that the pandemic has enabled a giant experiment that is somehow new.
Some whitepapers doing the rounds from large consulting firms can tend to ignore existing psychological and longitudinal data on wellbeing, virtual and agile working, and the impact of digitalization. Research is already available from established research institutes and in peer-reviewed journals. Some organizations have been agile or predominantly virtual for a long time. Now everyone, even industry laggards, have been forced to adopt it.
Understandably, the emerging thought leadership being churned out at pace is focusing on the way people work and believe they want to work. There is much discussion about what collaboration tools and technologies people are using, and how home working or hybrid ways of working can be done well.
Companies around the world are planning to make permanent changes based on what is being learned during this pandemic. There is every likelihood now that flexible and virtual working or some derivative of it will be an essential aspect of working life for many, if not most office-based staff after the pandemic. I have long been a cautious advocate of flexible and agile working myself, cautious partly because generally I resist one-size-fits-all panaceas. I am cautious also because research data tells us these ways of working often carry their own human challenges that need careful management.
In an agile ‘workplace’, which seamlessly combines face-to-face and virtual working, managers need to create sufficient psychological safety to keep themselves and their teams outside their comfort zones. Collective performance and learning are what counts.
Safety and trust in an agile organization becomes a way to reinforce intrinsic motivation and creative risk, in service of a common purpose. As the ‘trust fall’, a common exercise in team building, has demonstrated for decades, trust helps ordinary people do extraordinary things. That is what a great working environment achieves, virtual or otherwise.
It is natural for people to need to feel that while they are being challenged, they are in some form or another also appreciated as individuals, not just treated like ‘task-bots’. Commodification of work, and of working relationships, is a potential risk of permanent home working.
The psychology of employee engagement points to a need for organizations to embrace relational, rather than extremely mechanistic, transactional, ways of interacting. The ability to have effective conversations at work – both virtual and face to face - is essential to an inclusive, engaged workplace. This is also connected to social capital in a business – the resilience, depth, and quality of relationships. Social capital depends on trust, shared identity, shared values, cooperation, reciprocity, and a sense of psychological equity.
When it comes to trust, even prior to C-19, there was a serious ‘knowing-doing’ gap in many large organizations. For one thing, extreme pay distance between senior staff and other employees has undermined trust and engagement. For many, stress, fatigue, and ill-health were prevalent symptoms of over-work, mismanagement, cognitive overload, unhealthy working conditions, and non-jobs that lack meaning or purpose.
No wonder so many people are reportedly very happy to stay at home, rather than go back to places of work. As a work psychologist, this does not surprise me. I am picking up signs that working from home feels safer for some, relatively free from the anxiety that can arise due to feeling constantly judged, or subtly excluded from an unofficial 'inner circle'.
Yes, in some surveys people tell us, where their jobs allow it, they want to work at home more. What they might also be saying is they want working life to feel fairer, healthier, more inclusive, more sustainable, more meaningful, and more satisfying. Perhaps for some, the informality of working from home, even with its many downsides, feels like a kind of exit from a 'rat race' culture?
Even pre-C-19, research literature indicates that flexible and agile working has at times been implemented in ill-thought-through, mechanical, transactional ways which does not tackle underlying psychological issues. At the core of these issues, is the erosion of trust in leaders and in employers, which started way before C-19.
Given the imminent rapid rise in new ways of working, and accelerating digitalization, trust in organizations seems more important now than ever before. Yes, we can and probably should increase our use of virtual platforms beyond C-19, as flexibility becomes more acceptable. We must do that in a way that rebuilds trust and enhances wellbeing, that makes working life feel like less of a drain on human energy and spirit. Senior leaders should treat what people are saying right now as feedback of a deeper nature.
An even bigger and harder challenge is to improve the way we work while also facing up to the brutal facts of the current economic situation around the world.
How do you think organizations can develop healthy relationships and trust now and in future?
See also –
Cohen, D. & Prusak, L. (2001). In Good Company: How social capital makes organizations work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Francis, H., Ramdhony, A., Reddington, M., Staines, H., & Lees, I. (2013). Opening spaces for dialogic conversational practice: A conduit for effective engagement strategies and productive working arrangements. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24(14). pp. 2713-2740. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2013.781530
Joyce, K., Critchley, J.A., & Bambra, C. (2009). Flexible working conditions and their effects on employee health and wellbeing (Protocol). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Issue 2. Art. No.: CD008009. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008009.pub2.
Kinman, G. & McDowall, A. (2017). The present and future of flexible and agile work. The Psychologist, November 2017, pp. 27–28.
Rayton, R., Dodge, T., & D’Analeze, G. (2012). Employee Engagement: The evidence. London, UK: Engage for Success.
Roach, M. (2016). Flexible Working: Are employers missing a trick? London, UK: Great Place to Work.
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose