Prioritize Trust: The Biggest Workplace Imperative Of 2021

On the eve of 2021, we’re supposed to get excited to read the seemingly never-ending stream of stories about trends, predictions and sometimes flat-out conjecture that purport to represent the big changes our workplaces will face in the coming year.

This year might be a little bit different. After all, with the Covid-19 pandemic, it feels like most of 2020 has been dominated with speculation about the impact — both short-term and long-term — that the virus will have on business: The office is dead! The office is evolving! Remote work rules the day! Maybe? For some?

What could possibly be left to say or predict?

We’ve heard it all at this stage, and it changes by the day. The truth is when we try to project highly specific micro-trends across a macro-business landscape, it’s impossible to know what will really happen, especially when we consider how unique and dynamic individual businesses can be. Still, there is one thing you can do inside your organization no matter what goes on outside your organization. 

Trust is taken for granted.

Here’s the deal: If you want to improve the performance of your business in 2021, you need to prioritize trust. This is a topic that I’ve become increasingly passionate about as the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded. So much so that The Workforce Institute at UKG, where I serve as executive director, launched a global research project that surveyed nearly 4,000 business leaders and employees about their attitudes and feelings about trust.MORE FOR YOUThis Is the Future Of Remote Work In 2021How To Reduce Costly Employee Turnover: Assign Mentors On Day 1The Future Of Work Puts Employee Experience At The Center

The most shocking statistic to me? Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents globally say trust needs to be earned. Just one-third believed trust should be presumed. How backwards is that? You hire a candidate who navigates a competitive and sometimes grueling interview process. Everyone celebrates when the offer letter is signed. Then the first day of work arrives and the new employee is forced to start from scratch, earning equity with their new team and boss.

Why not presume trust?

The impact of low-workplace trust is real and it is costly, especially when you think about your talent pipeline.

According to The Workforce Institute survey, low trust drives turnover. A full one-quarter (24%) of employees say they’ve left a company mainly because they did not feel trusted.

Here’s where the conversation about low trust gets alarming: over half of employees say that trust has a big impact on the most important factors of their daily work experience, including their mental health (55%), career choices (58%) and sense of belonging (64%).

Low trust also limits your talent pipeline: a fifth (22%) say they did not make a referral for an open role at their company because they did not trust their company. Anyone in HR will tell you referrals are a goldmine — the top source for quality hires according to a 2019 Human Capital Institute study on talent acquisition and onboarding — and perform better than career sites, job boards, social media and even internal search. 

Develop trust, belonging and the employee experience.

I find it ironic that many organizations make significant investments into their so-called employee experience — usually in the form of attractive or trendy benefits packages — yet employees have surprisingly little autonomy once they get into the door. Little autonomy — especially when it comes to completing their daily responsibilities or handling something as intimate as work-life negotiation — is often perceived as a clear lack of trust. If employees don’t feel trusted, they’ll never feel like they truly belong at an organization.

Creating a workplace culture that is steeped in a strong sense of belonging is really challenging. Still, for organizations that are able to achieve that state (and it’s an organization-wide effort from the CEO to HR to people managers), they’re able to start doing truly special things. That is when true collaboration can occur, which in turn leads to the type of innovation or customer experience we all crave. 

This is echoed by the independent research firm Gartner, which in a 2020 report discusses how the combination of trust, understanding and support systems can reduce the likelihood that an employee will feel like an “outsider” in their own workplace.

Focus on what you can control.

I’m not going to pretend I know what 2021 will hold. There are too many wildcards. But I do know that great leaders are able to focus on what is going on within their own house while adapting to what is going on outside.

They’re able to build high-performing teams, develop new products and deliver great services because they’re able to stay focused on their organization instead of being constantly derailed by competitor news, or — in this extreme example — the Covid-19 economy.

Regardless of what is going on outside your organization, make a commitment to double down on building a culture of trust inside your organization. Presume trust. Act with transparency. Overcommunicate. When you lose trust with someone, work together to figure out a path to get it back. Encourage people managers to do the same with their teams.

This isn’t a quick initiative, but it’s a valuable one. After all, if we’re going to work remotely for the long-term, we’re going to need trust. If we’re going to call employees back to offices before they feel fully ready, we’re going to need trust. And if we’re going to continue to ask employees to report to essential workplaces like retail grocery stores, warehouses and manufacturing in the face of a potential winter surge, we’re going to need trust.

Dr. Chris Mullen, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP; Exec. Dir., The Workforce Institute at UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group); Public Speaker, Exec. Coach.

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