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4 ways to build trust with employees (especially when you can’t see them)

These days, you may not speak to your employees in-person, but you can still promote a trusting relationship.

4 ways to build trust with employees (especially when you can’t see them)
[Photo: fizkes/iStock]

Now that working remotely has become the norm, supervisors are realizing the challenges of leading a team they can’t see. It makes sense that they’re struggling: After all, managing employees remotely requires different skills than managing them face-to-face. The sudden arrival of the pandemic meant they had precious little time to prepare.

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Different industries will face different challenges when it comes to managing staff from afar. But whether you’re in charge of a team of engineers, designers, or bread bakers, there’s one element that’s absolutely critical: trust.

A lack of trust can be a team’s undoing. Research has found that managers who can’t see their direct reports sometimes doubt that they’re actually working. That doubt can lead to the unreasonable expectation that employees are always available, creating stress and disrupting their work-life balance. This, in turn, places undue strain on employees, who in many cases are trying to adjust to working from home themselves.

So how to learn to trust employees when they’re not in front of you? The secret is good communication. Here are a few tips on how to communicate with your remote workforce.

Set expectations

The easiest way to make sure employees are meeting expectations is to articulate what those expectations are. Rather than assuming everyone is available any time you are, establish the frequency and ideal timing for communication. For example, maybe you have a regularly scheduled video chat for check-ins, but use Slack when something is urgent.

It’s also helpful to determine the best time and means of reaching you, as the boss, during the workday; the same applies to your employees. As you’re settling into remote work, daily check-in calls, either one-on-one or with the whole team, can be instrumental in staying up-to-date on what everyone is working on and keeping them accountable. Moreover, regular and predictable check-ins ensure that lines of communication are open, and that employees will feel confident that they have an opportunity to ask any questions or share concerns.

The trick once you’ve set expectations is, of course, to stick to them, shares Sarah Park, president of MeetEdgar, with Fast Company. “Your team needs to know that you’re not going to change the goalposts on them.”

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Set employees up for success

In an office setting, the general expectation is that employees are given the tools they need to do their jobs. That shouldn’t change just because they’re remote. This means they should have access to the right materials, equipment, and information, be it a sufficiently large monitor or access to network drives. At my company, JotForm, we’re setting employees up with whatever they need to thrive in their home workspace. All they have to do is fill out a form with their requests and contact information, which helps us stay organized and gets them what they need promptly.

Recreating an office setting to the extent possible also means diversifying how you talk to one another. Barbara Z. Larson, Susan R. Vroman, and Erin E. Makarius write for Harvard Business Review that it’s important to offer several methods of communication. “Email alone is insufficient,” they say. “Remote workers benefit from having a ‘richer’ technology, such as video conferencing, that gives participants many of the visual cues that they would have if they were face-to-face.”

Finally, take advantage of management software to help streamline projects. A web-based tool like Trello can facilitate individual task management for individuals or teams, and offers at-a-glance progress reports, status updates, and deadline tracking.

Give feedback

So much of building trust is contingent upon open and honest communication. With employees out of sight, it’s key to address issues promptly as they arise, nipping negative feelings and confusion in the bud.

One good approach is to lead with appreciation, while also remaining direct about what you hope your conversation accomplishes. If you blindside your workers with harsh feedback, they are more likely to react defensively, rather than take your constructive comments seriously.

While feedback can be tough to give, it turns out that most employees crave it, even when it’s critical. An HBR study found that 57% prefer corrective feedback to praise or recognition. That said, it’s better to have these conversations over a video rather than a voice call, where visual cues like body language and facial expressions are lost.

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Offer opportunities for social interaction

One of the most difficult aspects of working remotely is loneliness. This might seem like a problem that only afflicts extroverts, but in the long run, social isolation can have damaging effects on even the most introverted among us.

With in-person team building off the table for now, managers should find ways for employees to interact socially while remote, be it leaving open discussion time during meetings or creating fun Slack channels for nonwork chitchat. After all, building rapport through casual interaction is one of the best ways to build trust.

Speaking further to Fast Company on communicating while remote, Kieran Flanagan, VP of marketing at HubSpot, suggests using Zoom’s breakout feature to encourage small group meet-ups, both among employees and with managers. “It might feel like a waste of precious meeting time, but it’s not—it’s a way to ensure that everyone still feels connected, which is crucial in building a remote culture that works,” he says.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.

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