Trust-based workplaces

2009

We've long held the view that the principles and philosophies of flexible working are fundamentally flawed. The trouble is two-fold. Firstly, it all too often gets linked to time (and I'll deal with this later), and secondly it's irrevocably linked to government policies and that invariably means it's not 'owned' by operational leaders. Had Michael Porter, Tom Peters, or Gary Hamel written the philosophies of flexible working, it would have been mainstream practice in every single organisation and on the bookshelf of every self-respecting leader.

Let's return to the first issue, time. Flexible working is often described as involving; part-time working, flexi-time working, annualised hours, compressed hours, staggered hours, job sharing, or home working. The problem here is that these terms share a common factor – to a greater or lesser extent, they all refer to time.

As soon as the word 'time' is mentioned inside an organisation, the call goes out for someone to police it – be it HR or more often line managers. And this policing is commonly inadequate or random. Some managers get it, others don't. But reality is that most organisations don't give a damn about time. What they care about is creativity, output, outcomes and productivity.

So why do organisations cling to the idea that they can boost productivity by measuring time? The answer can be traced to the principles of Taylorism when it was deemed that all employees were loafers or malingerers who fundamentally couldn't be trusted. Consequently, every working (or waking) hour was strictly supervised.

Why do organisations cling to the idea that they can boost productivity by measuring time?

But today, what we do, how we live and how we work is utterly different to that of a hundred years ago. Organisations put huge efforts into employing sentient "human beings", not "human doings", because they crave the free-thinking inspirational, innovative, creative, talents. They place considerable emphasis on employee engagement that encourages choice, in the hope that staff will act in a way that furthers their organisation's interests.

Yet despite this, often through fright and ignorance, many organisations still cling onto the vestiges of a time-based culture.

Well, it's time to change, to change to trust-based workplaces.

Trust is such a simple concept – isn't it? You know when you have trust and you know when you don't. For instance, around the world we celebrate Valentine's day, which is the epitome of trust – a celebrating a firm belief in reliability, truth, and the ability of someone else. Socially, we are capable of building lifelong relationships and friendships – and in today's social networked world, this can often be with people we don't see. Yet, at our places of work, we so often struggle with this simple concept.

So, what is workplace trust and how is it defined? Is it possible for an organisation to build trust when it doesn't exist? And how do you maintain and build upon the trust you may currently have in your workplace?

Answering these questions can create a different and vibrant workplace capable of delivering unheard-of levels of productivity – one that's far more aligned to today's rapidly changing world.

Trust forms the organisational foundation for effective communication, employee retention, employee motivation, and contribution of discretionary energy, the extra effort that people voluntarily invest in work. When trust exists in an organisation or in a relationship, everything is easier and more comfortable to achieve.

To make it easier to understand this concept, think of trust as consisting of interrelated components.

The capacity for trusting means that your total life experiences have developed your current capacity and willingness to risk trusting others.

The perception of competence comes from your perception of your ability and the ability of others with whom you work to perform competently at whatever is needed in your current situation.

The perception of intentions is your perception that the actions, words, direction, mission, or decisions are motivated by mutually-serving rather than self-serving motives.

As organisations increasingly embrace outsourcing and third party relationships, they in turn become decentralised and more distributed. In addition, work itself is becoming increasingly virtual – indeed, it is projected that by the close of 2010, the majority of staff will spend just 5% of their day in the same space and time as colleagues. The other 95% of their day will be spent working alone, in a different location, or a different schedule.

This change means organisations must strengthen their focus on values in order to span cultural and operational boundaries. Creating a trust-based workplace demands a smarter leadership that has the responsibility of creating a clear statement of values to guide the principles of trust throughout the organisation. If clear values are absent or not accepted, there's a real danger that staff will act in their own interests, risking the entire organisation's reputation.

Trust-based values are key to providing cohesion – if staff have confidence that their colleagues are operating on the same basic trust principles as themselves, it creates harmonious and effective working relationships.

A trust-based culture plays a crucial role in attracting and retaining top talent. It's broadly recognised that, far beyond adequate reward, Generation Y demand meaning and inspiration in their work. The balance has shifted from using brand to differentiate to the outside world to using brand as a key differentiation for current and prospective employees through their values. A strong culture is proving vital to attracting and motivating talented people.

Business leaders must demonstrate humility – building a culture that inspires trust isn't about putting their stamp on everything, and creating dependency. Leaders must be focused on their organisation's success and reputation, not their personal gain (bankers take note). In this way, a culture can be easily mirrored, and is respected both inside and external to the organisation without resorting to presence, hierarchy, or status.

By having clear tenets of trust that everyone understands, believes in, and adheres to, business leaders can have confidence that staff will do the right thing when left to make decisions independently. This in turn quickly creates the nirvana of the flexible, more nimble organisation that's able to implement stronger, faster decisions – the nirvana so sought through other working models. Are you ready for the change?

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.

Older Comments

Hi John, Your comment 'Had Michael Porter, Tom Peters, or Gary Hamel written the philosophies of flexible working, it would have been mainstream practice in every single organisation'...sounds like a plan! So how do we persuade one of these giants to write a book on flexible/agile working, with all its benefits (as we know)...that would open the floodgates for workplace/change consultants, good for us all....Paul

Paul Carder Tavistock, Devon (today)