As we talk about hybrid work, let’s also talk about trust

Hybrid team grid with plus signs to show trust

As we talk about hybrid work, let’s also talk about trust

Hybrid team grid with plus signs to show trust

Leaders and workers who are planning for hybrid work arrangements should simultaneously attend to four vital realms of trust: trust in you, trust in us, trust in myself, and trust in learning. Doing so will pave the way for a better, richer hybrid experience.

Decisions about hybrid work arrangements are beginning to coalesce in organizations, with many companies aiming for a Fall 2021 transition away from all-remote work and toward a mix of some in-office work and some remote work. Policies are being announced, spaces are being reconfigured, and technologies are being optimized for hybrid.

At the same time, there’s misalignment between employers and employees. McKinsey & Company’s July 9, 2021 article, It’s Time for Leaders to Get Real About Hybrid, puts it this way: “Employers are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. Employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most employers believe, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be imminent.”

Among many sources of disagreement between leaders and employees, I posit there’s a fundamental one that organizational leaders may not be confronting or talking about plainly: the issue of trust.

Specifically, I contend there are four arenas of trust that should be examined and discussed as leaders think about and plan for hybrid. Employees should be considering them, too.


Trust in you

Many organizational leaders point to “culture” and “collaboration” as two key reasons to bring workers back into the office: We want to reinvigorate a culture of dynamic, social interaction where ideas flow, relationships are strengthened, and we can do even better work together.

These are reasonable justifications for bringing people into the office, even backed by social and cognitive science. Yet conversations I’ve had with organizational workers reveal another, potentially darker undercurrent in leaders’ rationales: They may not entirely trust their employees, and they want them within sight.

This sentiment may not be overtly acknowledged by leaders and managers—or even fully known by those who believe it. But probe more deeply, and you may encounter beliefs such as “I want more direct oversight and control of my employees” or “If I can’t see my employees working, how do I know what they’re doing?” Such concerns about accountability and control may be especially prevalent among more traditional leaders who were very comfortable in work arrangements that dominated organizational cultures for decades, and that the pandemic disrupted.

Beliefs like these are hard to rewire—even in the face of ample evidence that during COVID’s forced period of remote work, many employees worked harder, longer, and even more successfully. Many of us hold onto our mental models fervently. If you are a leader who harbors hesitations about trusting your employees, then this is an excellent time to examine your beliefs and assumptions directly, and ask whether they serve you and your workers well, as your organization transitions into a new era of work.


Trust in us

The pandemic has tested organizations again and again. Many teams and individuals have responded heroically: they innovated, they collaborated, they did whatever it took to serve customers and take care of each other. As crises can do, COVID brought out the best in many workers, teams, and organizations.

The question now is: Do we trust ourselves collectively to design and implement hybrid work arrangements that will advance organizational priorities and attend to the needs of our employees?

The corollary question for leaders is: Do I trust that we all, together, can chart a successful course through the unknown terrain of hybrid work?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then that suggests an inclusive, collaborative approach to designing for hybrid—one that elicits the same creative energies that spurred our organizations and teams to prevail during the height of the COVID emergency. In that context, hybrid policies and protocols will be generated not behind closed C-suite doors, but as a dynamic endeavor that cultivates the contributions, ideas, wisdom, and lived experiences of workers throughout the organization.

With this approach, the remarkable, innovative organizational efforts through the pandemic are not an exception, but a set of battle-hardened aptitudes that we can harness enthusiastically and generously for the future of organizational work.

If your leaders are not inclined to extend such trust to your teams and the organization as a whole as you prepare for hybrid, then I would ask: Why not?


Trust in myself

Leaders and workers who in the last 18 months were unmoored from habitual work practices had to become increasingly self-reliant. Each person has needed to make myriad decisions and adjustments: “How do I keep myself and my family safe while we’re all at home together?” “How do I sustain productivity without my usual infrastructure?” “How do I manage childcare while I attend so many Zoom meetings?” There was no pandemic playbook to guide individual decisions and actions.

As a result, each of us has had to demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness.

We can also reflect on how we have been accountable to colleagues and the organization, without the usual guideposts and guardrails that prescribe our actions in normal circumstances. We have each had to show up, make judgment calls, experiment, recalibrate, and keep moving forward as situations shifted.

To the extent that any of us can yet exhale, this is a time to appreciate what we have been able to do with little guidance—and to recognize our vulnerabilities. Each of us should know ourselves better from this experience.

And now, with this deeper self-knowledge, we are asked to look forward and step into a new way of working—hybrid—that is again full of unknowns.

So, workers and leaders at all levels, consider this question: How do I trust myself—my judgment, my aspirations, my accrued wisdom—to contribute to hybrid work arrangements for the good of all concerned?


Trust in learning 

For almost every organization, hybrid work arrangements are a new domain. Questions about how to design and implement hybrid are yielding more questions, including fundamental ones about how work should happen in a world that’s not the same.

Yes, we need answers to guide short-term actions so organizational work can proceed. But no hybrid answers can be definitive, not at this stage. Instead, leaders and employees should embrace the fertile realm of learning together, in which everyone shares what’s working and what isn’t, and adjusts and innovates for months, even years, to come.

Organizations that trust hybrid as a vibrant learning experiment will be able to step into the future of work more confidently and more adaptively. In turn, they can extract the best that hybrid has to offer—and they can strengthen the organization as they do.

The authors of the July 9 McKinsey article argue that leaders can make a choice to “embrace this singular opportunity for change and work with their people—closely and transparently, with curiosity, respect, and a willingness to learn together instead of mandating—to discover a new and better way to work.”

To do that, leaders and workers alike need to trust.


Tom Lowery is Better Still’s content creator and designer. Learn more about Better Still’s Hybrid Workforce Solution, which incorporates the Sane Change SM method. The Better Still Teamwork Toolkit® for Hybrid Teams provides a practical, engaging, step-by-step program for teams to succeed with hybrid work arrangements.

© 2020-2021 Connection Matters, Inc. All rights reserved. “Better Still” and “Better Still Teamwork Toolkit” are service marks of Connection Matters, Inc., registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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