How do HR managers build trust in an era of remote working?

Richard Peachey, from a workplace conflict mediation consultancy, discusses how HR managers can build good workplace cultures in a hybrid working environment

University staff of all types have enjoyed the flexibility and greater sense of independence and control that came with remote or hybrid working during the pandemic.

Bodies like the Chartered Management Institute now argue that hybrid working should become the norm, the best practice option — because, ultimately, ‘hybrid’ has led to improvements in productivity and financial results for organisations.

All sounds good in principle. 

Beneath headlines about the uptake of hybrid working, HE managers have real concerns about how to deal with the day-to-day implications, such as inconsistencies in availability, staff with different attitudes to where and how they should be working, looser communications all around. 

The most obvious challenge for managers is what hybrid arrangements ultimately do to workplace relationships and levels of trust. With more homeworking, are there the same levels of commitment to work roles and duties, the same attention given to meeting student needs? 

Do academics and other staff feel they are part of the university community, involved and getting the recognition they deserve for the work they do? 

These are just some of the reasons so many universities and other organisations would prefer staff to go back into offices — despite all the benefits that hybrid working can bring.

Hybrid working puts the usual informal networks that create a culture of trust under strain.

Hybrid working puts the usual informal networks that create a culture of trust under strain

There is less time for face-to-face contact and when it does happen, there is more pressure on time. The rapport needed for trust and openness is undermined over time. 

People that are based solely in the office or at home can feel isolated and divided from those who are together, communicating and sharing their experiences every day.

Worst of all, without trust and a sense of belonging within a university, there is more chance of niggling grievances turning into full-blown conflict, for personality clashes to be emphasised, for problems to go unresolved.

That means managers and staff turn immediately to formal processes, disciplinary action, employment tribunals and higher levels of staff turnover. If people have fewer opportunities for informal contact — the few minutes of catch-up after a team meeting, bumping into each other in a corridor, sitting together over lunch — then there need to be other informal channels for dealing with issues.

So far the response from HR has been around legal implications and compliance, reviewing work from home policies, and who is entitled to what. What is really needed is attention to the state of workplace relationships and the quality of conversations on and offline: what channels are staff using, what support services are available for anticipating and managing conflict; making sure line managers and staff, in general, have the conversation skills to face up to more testing, perhaps awkward situations where there are gripes and anxieties. 

When employees feel able to be open about their worries and have an honest conversation about their personal situation, there are opportunities to avoid formal processes, disciplinary action and tribunals. They must trust their manager and their employer to listen without preconceptions or making snap judgments that damage their standing in the organisation.

That means developing psychological safety, by:

  • creating more opportunities for conversations as part of daily routines, digitally and face-to-face, and not allowing staff to become complacent and fall into disconnected routines — it is happening more and more now the novelty of remote working has gone;
  • equipping managers with better conversation skills: listening skills, self-awareness and empathy are all needed to a greater degree when dealing with people remotely;
  • ensuring there are informal systems to catch grievances early and deal with conflict, via methods like mediation and neutral assessment. There are now far more reasons and chances for concerns and minor conflicts to go under the radar, to fester and escalate;
  • and, ultimately, in order to secure the basis of trust, review standards and approaches to workplace investigations.

Richard Peachey, psychological safety and higher education expert at CMP,

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