How leaders can build a culture of trust—and why they should

The pandemic and remote work have accelerated a paradigm shift from control to trust—a change that increases employee energy and engagement, says the CEO of freelance marketplace Worksome.

How leaders can build a culture of trust—and why they should
[Photo: yunmi park/iStock]

What is the best way to find out if you can trust somebody? Ernest Hemingway said the answer was simple: “To trust them.” 


Trust is a trait that can only truly exist both ways. In the workplace, any new employee will join their team believing they can trust their employer to do right by them: to ensure they are paid enough and on time, to look after their well-being, and to help them achieve progression in their careers.

The erosion of this trust may be immediate in the case of those working under particularly exploitative employers—those who have no interest in trusting their staff and see them merely as money-making tools. 

But often trust is eroded over a longer period of time. Some fear taking a sick day, not because their employer won’t allow them to have it, but because they are concerned they will be questioned (particularly in the case of mental health); others may be afraid to clock off 30 minutes early even when they got ahead of the day and started early; and until the pandemic at least, working from home was considered a nonstarter by many, or even “not really working” by others.

Cultures of presenteeism and control like this, however, are not necessarily the result of a bad employer. More often than not, they occur in larger, less agile, older companies, operating on the outdated business models they were founded on, rather than those that reflect the realities of the 21st century.

Trust runs two ways

But over the past decade or so, organizations that have been forward thinking enough to encourage greater flexibility have been rewarded. When those at the top of the hierarchy trust those underneath them, both parties will benefit: the former with motivated and mentally engaged staff, the latter with the freedom and independence to work to their own needs.


The numbers speak for themselves. A Harvard Business Review study in 2017 found that employees working in high-trust rather than low-trust environments were 106% more energetic at work, 76% more engaged with their jobs and experienced 74% less stress. 

And yet, whether out of a perceived convenience or a lack of trust, figures published by the UK Government’s Office for National Statistics on 24th March 2020—just one day after the first national lockdown in the UK was announced—found that less than 30% of the workforce had ever previously worked from home. Similar figures were reflected in our own research which found around a quarter of jobs were carried out remotely prior to COVID-19. This figure is now nearer 90%.

Related: Companies are just now starting to figure out remote work

Remote working is not the be-all and end-all that separates a trusting employer from a non-trusting one, but it is significant. It puts the responsibility for the times that staff work, the environment they do it in, and even the amount of work they do into their hands. Micromanagement is almost impossible, and it is perhaps that which many felt uncomfortable with.

But ultimately, this cultural change was not in the control of employers. When it came to the pandemic, businesses that could continue to operate remotely simply did so because they had to.


This has been a defining moment for our collective working habits. There is no question about that. But what remains unknown is whether this is a long-term trend, or one that will fade as quickly as it arrived, once vaccine rollout brings the pandemic under control.

Workers are on average 13% more productive whilst working from home, so leaders must ask themselves whether they could have been part of the problem. By micromanaging their workforce as they did in the office, did they actually worsen the performance of their employees?

As we begin to look towards recovery, now is the time for business leaders to challenge any issues that they have previously had in trusting their employees. Similarly, they must trust the statistics that show trusted employees are happier employees, and happier employees are better employees.

This is not a new phenomenon: Alex Edmans, a professor of finance at London Business School, found in 2012 that firms listed in the “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” outperformed their peers by between 2.3% and 3.8% in stock returns each year. Matt Phelan, co-founder of The Happiness Index, assesses that these statistics show satisfaction is a driver of good performance, in contrast to perhaps the more traditional view that good performance drives satisfaction.

Embracing the paradigm shift

This is also an opportunity for employers to embrace the freedom of freelancers. This is a group of the global workforce that are among those hit the hardest by the pandemic. In our own data with over a thousand freelancers we found that over two-thirds of contractors do not feel that freelance staff received enough government support during the pandemic. 


But despite these struggles, freelance work has become a more appealing prospect for many. It gives people a chance to gain greater flexibility in who they work for and when. The majority of freelancers signed up to our platform say that life is better as a freelancer than as a permanent employee, with more time to spend with their families and greater economic freedom.

At a time when many are reflecting on their lives and their work satisfaction, more are making the transition to freelance roles. Around one in five freelancers surveyed made the switch during the pandemic, but 83% of current freelancers consider their shift to freelancing permanent.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for companies themselves to take advantage. If flexible working was the rising trend of the 2010s—exacerbated this year by COVID-19—then perhaps the change of the 2020s is the rise of the flexible employee. With remote working embedded, businesses can look further afield for the talent they hire, no longer constrained by geographical boundaries.

In the UK, this could be a significant step in the government’s levelling up agenda, aimed at reducing regional economic inequalities. The exodus of young people from cities in the North and Midlands toward London and its commuter suburbs has slowed in recent years—with London seeing a net loss in its population in 2018 and 2019. Could this pattern accelerate further, repeating itself in countries around the world, if jobseekers—and freelancers in particular—can now take up roles for firms inside the capital, but base themselves outside of it? 

I absolutely believe we are going through a step change that will be with us for years to come. With remote working, there is an opportunity for companies to access a far broader, even international workforce. In the wake of Brexit and uncertainties about how the UK will access the best talent from abroad, this could be incredibly beneficial.


As I see it, there are three steps organizations must take to overcome control culture and move to a model of trust. Firstly, embrace the opportunity for change. If COVID-19 forced you into an unexpected and previously unwanted remote modus operandi, do not just return to the old normal as soon as the pandemic ends. Reflect on your business and employee performance during this time—what worked and what did not—and build a model that works for you and gives greater freedom to your staff.

The second step is to thrive with freelance. In a world of flexible working, build your flexible workforce—widen your potential talent pool and search afar to find the person who best fits your role—no matter where they’re based or even what their preferred hours are. 

And finally, the simplest step of them all—take a leaf out of Ernest Hemingway’s book. If you’re wondering how you can trust someone, there is only one way you can really find out: trust them.

Morten Petersen is the CEO and cofounder and CEO of Worksome,  an online talent solution that allows companies to seamlessly tap into a global on-demand workforce. Prior to founding Worksome, Morten spent five years working within Google’s Danish management team, where he was responsible for leading commercial activity out of Copenhagen.