What are the effective strategies and best practices for creating lasting connections and fostering trust among colleagues? In an interview on the topic for the school’s digital talk show, ESCP Live, in July 2023, Leonid Goncharov, CEO et co-founder of coworking spaces Work&Go and co-founder and ex-CEP of Anticafé, and Kerstin Alfes, professor of organisational and human resource management at ESCP Business School, shed light on how to foster closer ties inside teams and companies. We’ve gathered their takes and top advice below.
In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, success can no longer solely rely on profits and productivity. Considering the different crises that disrupt or have disrupted our old ways (whether it be COVID-19 and the popularisation of remote work or climate change urging us to adopt more sustainable practices), success is increasingly determined by the strength of connections and the kind of trust that will support our organisations’ abilities to adapt.
As we navigate the complexities of the modern workplace, where virtual meetings are more frequent than face-to-face interactions, the question of how to foster connection and trust has become paramount.
To understand how modern companies can implement effective strategies to create lasting connections and trust between employees, we reached out to two experts on the matter. In this article, Leonid Goncharov, former CEO of famous coworking spaces “Anticafé” and present co-founder of Work & Go, alongside Kerstin Alfes, professor of organisational and human resource management at ESCP Business School provide us with their precious insights on how to foster a trustworthy environment for people to work, and to thrive.
Employees quickly gauge whether they trust their leader based on whether that leader ‘walks the talk’ and follows through on their promises. Therefore, authenticity is, in my opinion, a foundational element in establishing trust.Prof. Kerstin Alfes
Trust 101: how to define trust in the workplace
While trust in the workplace is somewhat similar to trust in other areas of life, it takes on an additional dimension when subjected to the people you see every day at your job. For Kerstin Alfes, creating trust is always about authenticity: “Being authentic means showing your true self, especially as a leader in the workplace. It’s about not pretending to be someone you’re not or advocating for something you don’t genuinely believe in.”
And in the workplace, employees will quickly evaluate whether they can trust you or not: “Employees quickly gauge whether they trust their leader based on whether that leader ‘walks the talk’ and follows through on their promises. Therefore, authenticity is, in my opinion, a foundational element in establishing trust.”
However, authenticity does not mean you should embrace reckless transparency as a rule to foster trust inside of your teams: “A difference must be made between authenticity, transparency and confidentiality. Transparency is a key component to fostering trust inside your team if you’re a manager: your employees need to know which goal you are working towards. A good leader will also be transparent about their weaknesses and where there is room for improvement. However, you should also be able to recognise which topics are confidential and establish some boundaries around them,” says Alfes. “Not everything should be revealed, for personal or ethical reasons.”
For Leonid Goncharov, CEO of Work & Go coworking spaces, a trust-oriented leader needs to integrate open communication into his or her leadership style: “Trust means being able, as a leader, to create an environment where employees know their ideas are welcome, that help is available, and that everyone works towards the same goal while being expected to work at the same level of commitment.”
A definition Kerstin Alfes agrees with: “It’s crucial for team members to feel that their colleagues, including line managers, have their backs in times of trouble or when issues arise at work. As a line manager, demonstrating and signalling to employees that you will protect and support them, even in the face of mistakes, is a key element in building trust.”
Trust means being able, as a leader, to create an environment where employees know their ideas are welcome, that help is available, and that everyone works towards the same goal while being expected to work at the same level of commitment.Leonid Goncharov
Trust in the era of remote work
Our societies as a whole seem to be lacking trust as the precious commodity it is. As Kerstin Alfes highlights, the numerous crises our societies have and continue to experience negatively influence our levels of trust in other areas of our lives: “People generally struggle with trust more now compared to what we might have seen in the past. This context greatly influences how employees perceive trust within their workplace.”
Indeed, Covid-19 and the rise of remote work has, for some, considerably exacerbated a tendency to mistrust: “People who work remotely tend to misinterpret each other’s behaviours. There’s no coffee machine for clarifying situations so this can create tensions. It’s a lot more difficult to build trust in remote teams and more difficult to keep trust at a high level,” explains Alfes.
Since the rise of remote work, some managers have a harder time closely monitoring their team members’ productivity, possibly resulting in less trust among teams. However, for efficient collaboration, managers should be able to trust their collaborators, and vice-versa. “Some managers have what we call ‘productivity paranoia’ when it comes to remote work, but, as a fact, some employees are more productive while working from home.”
If you’ve found yourself struggling with the ‘productivity paranoia’ of your higher-ups, Kerstin Alfes advises you to start a conversation with your manager.
“Begin by understanding why the manager insists on having you in the office. Perhaps your manager has had negative experiences before, or maybe they have led a team where remote workers were less productive. Initiating a conversation to uncover the reasons behind the lack of trust in remote work is an important first step. Gradually, through discussions, negotiations, and demonstrating productivity, we can work to reshape the perception that working in the office is better than working from home.”
For Leonid Goncharov, trusting his employees was always part of his vision: “Not a lot has changed for us since Covid, we had 80 people in 6 cities, for 14 locations. Part of the company culture has always been about trust and is still today result-oriented. As long as people are committed to results, I don’t see why work should not be flexible.”
The benefits of trust in the workplace
According to Professor Kerstin Alfes’s research, developing a sense of safety and trust in the workplace comes with a handful of benefits for companies: “Our research shows very clearly that trust is a key ingredient for people to be engaged. It also indicates that employees who trust are more willing to go the extra mile. This can be explained by the fact that, when in a trustworthy environment, I can put in the extra effort and know that, at some point, the organisation will reciprocate. Trust also leads to higher job satisfaction and increased commitment, and it makes people more inclined to assist their colleagues and demonstrate greater loyalty as members of the organisation.”
But how can we know if our efforts to foster trust even work? As Kerstin Alfes explains, surveys can help managers bring a theoretical frame to measuring the level of trust inside their teams.
“In our research team, we gauge trust by asking questions such as: ‘To what extent do you trust your line manager?’, ‘To what extent do you trust your teammates?’ and ‘To what extent do you trust your organisation?’. These questions are asked repeatedly over time, allowing us to track trends in trust within teams. We can also explore correlations with factors like changes in line management, alterations in HR policies, and shifts in job structures to better understand how trust evolves over time.” Once managers and leaders are able to identify pockets where trust is particularly low within the organisation, discussions with employees can be engaged through focus groups, ensuring anonymity.
How to create a space where people can trust each other and feel safe
Trust within an organisation not only fosters better collaboration, creativity or innovation but is also essential for people to feel safe and at ease: “For example, if we consider employees from minority groups, it’s crucial for them to feel safe at work,” explains Alfes. “To achieve this sense of safety, they must be able to trust their leader to create inclusive environments where they won’t face harm or discrimination.”
On a more general note, a leader looking to win their employees’ trust should be very careful to not break promises: “The importance of keeping promises surfaces as another fundamental aspect of trust-building, both within teams and between line managers and teams. When promises are consistently fulfilled, trust is reinforced. However, when promises are broken repeatedly, it can lead to a pervasive sense of mistrust within the organisation.”
We took care to recruit people that shared the same values as the organisation. We wanted people to share a vision of why they wanted to work there. Then, through HR policies, we made sure these people had the chance to meet each other and create personal connections, through team building for example.Leonid Goncharov
So, how can leaders take action to foster a sense of trust? Leonid Goncharov, a long-time expert on how to create connections between people by opening up spaces for collaboration, illustrates this clearly:
“At Work & Go, and before that at Anticafé, we took care to recruit people who shared the same values as the organisation. We wanted people to share a vision of why they wanted to work there. Then, through HR policies, we made sure these people had the chance to meet each other and create personal connections, through team building for example. We want our employees to still be friends once they leave the company. Our company’s policy is also about mutual support. We don’t condemn errors and mistakes.”
The example set by Anticafé coworking spaces shows the intelligence of the social engineering at play: “The personnel at Anticafé are specifically trained to foster connections between people who come to work in our spaces. Thanks to the digital data we gathered, we can help people with compatible ambitions and skills meet each other. A lot of great teamwork has emerged from there between people who at first didn’t know each other.”
In essence, trust is not merely a byproduct of organisational culture but a consciously cultivated asset. By following the principles of shared values, personal connections, and mutual support, leaders can foster an environment where trust thrives, ultimately enhancing the potential for collaboration and innovation within their teams.
This article is the first in a series where we will continue to explore collaboration in the modern workplace.
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