Trust, a skill to learn
The outbreak of Covid-19 was beyond anyone’s expectations. No one expected that 2020 would be so challenging.
Overnight, working at home, e-learning at home, exercising at home and socialising remotely suddenly became the new trends we needed to adopt. From people’s initial confusion and unpreparedness to the gesture of acceptance – during which some people further discovered new joy – it once again proved the rule “survival of the fittest”.
Working in a company that is particularly passionate about the relationship between a companies’ work space and work style, I am particularly intrigued by the impact this new ‘work life’ is having. Especially since such a dramatic change in behaviour can help us further understand how different working environments and different ways of working influence an organisations’ ultimate performance. In fact, when an organisation is in such a huge and uncertain period of change, the importance of the workplace and the way of working, that some people would never have thought much about, just became the most unneglectable factor which may be pivotal in helping organisations to survive.
Many of my friends live in China, which was the first region in the world to be impacted heavily by the outbreak, and the earliest to be put under wide-spread quarantine. So having observed their progress closely from the start, I discovered that since remote working was imposed, all the challenges and difficulties navigating towards a new future of work seem to branch into two stages; individual response and team trust.
Stage 1: Individual response
The response to the first stage reflected the immediacy of change and stemmed quickly from two points:
(1) Equipment and tools:
The equipment and tools for remote working were not all ready. It might be the limited broadband speed at home, the firewall setting and cyber security blockers, the need for personal hardware repair or upgrade, or the inconvenience of “not being able to print at home”. In short, all of these types of problems seemed to revolve around “hardware support and technical support.”
With the remote help of technicians, these technical problems were solved in a very short time.
(2) Family life:
The second obstacle came mainly from the mutual distraction between family members. In most of the cities in China, limited space at home makes it hard for each family member to have their own separate work station, away from the common living facilities. For working-at-home parents, they also need to pay attention to their child’s e-learning progress and be ready to solve IT problems at any time. Living under the same roof with older parents also brings a challenge. It was a familiar scene during video calls, that older parents would walk straight into the camera zone to serve some fruits or snacks while we would be trying to concentrate. That is the cute way for Asian parents to show their love and intimacy.
After a period of adjusting, most of the anxiety eased. Children from a certain age adapted to online learning themselves; adults who need to both work from home learnt to be smarter by understanding each other’s work activity and manage their time accordingly to avoid mutual interference as much as possible.
Stage 2: Team trust
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
If the focus from the first stage was mainly about each person’s physical environment and self-management, the second stage then evolved to be at the team connection and leadership level. It was a big concern for leaders and managers to think about the best way to promote team spirit despite the dispersed location. At the core of this is trust.
One of my friends is the owner of a small trading business in Shanghai. His concern was how to ensure that your employees “work” at home instead of “pretend to work” at home. Until one day, he came into a “brilliant idea” – to ask a dozen employees to turn on the camera and check the online meeting tool during working hours, even though there were no real meetings going on. By having them turn on the camera he could then judge that his employees were working (because they were on the computer).
He told me, “I’m not interested in their personal privacy. I asked them to turn on the camera, but they don’t necessarily need to aim to themselves. I just wanted to know whether they have turned on the computer.”
I asked him, “How do you ensure that someone is really working and doesn’t just have the computer on? Moreover, when they worked in the office in the past, could you tell how hard they worked by observing whether they are sitting behind the computer?”
He was lost in thought. I know that it is hard to give trust completely without seeing each other. This is especially difficult for Asian entrepreneurs with a deep cultural root in believing in the power of presence. They cannot imagine commanding an invisible army.
In some modern organizations, ideas like remote team building and virtual socialising were gradually put on the agenda. There are many options for online communication tools, but the proactive and effective communication initiated from the team leader cannot be replaced by any other tools. This can’t be replaced by one or two greeting calls per week neither.
When I look back at Veldhoen + Company’s consultation for companies who embraced Activity Based Working, I was suddenly enlightened. The way of working in an activity-based workplace gives people the option to choose when, where and with whom they want to work. Under this freedom, people must adopt a matching code of conduct and leadership to meet the challenges posed by dispersed and mobile teams. This is no different from the essence of working from home.
A modern leader, in order to manage their team dispersed in different locations, must first have the ability to clarify long-term and short-term strategies. He or she needs to be very specific about the roles and goals of each team member, as well as their accountabilities. Their communication channel must be kept open to allow any remaining problems and disputes to be discussed. At the same time, he or she must demonstrate a profound level of trust. There is an old Chinese saying, 用人不疑，疑人不用, which means “trust the person in position”.
We all understand this principle in a traditional way of working. Why can’t we apply this principle when we are working remotely and not seeing each other? It sounds simple but in reality, there are complex challenges to truly embrace the leadership of trust. Trust is a powerful spice for the team spirit, and a team leader who shows a good skill of trust will be rewarded with the trust and respect from the team members back. It is a skill worthy of some time with training and deep reflection, but pitifully it is often overlooked (maybe intentionally).
At present, most Chinese companies reopened their offices and operation is back to normal. Whether the excitement of working from home is only a blast in the night, or a prelude to a huge change to the new way of working, we don’t know. During this large-scale historic experiment, the ability of working remotely is like a mirror, reflecting both the advantages and defects of each team’s leadership skill.
Recently, I posted a question on my social network account, “How do you think the company should do to maintain a hygienic and disinfected working environment after the outbreak?” Among the various responses, I received a reply saying, “No one will be allowed to speak face-to-face, if necessary, they can only communicate via phone or Email”. Really, this answer made me laugh, and felt the huge pressure the team leaders still have to face even after people go back to work in the office.
To end this blog, I would like to quote a famous line from Winston Churchill
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
Maybe you already knew, the Chinese words for crisis, 危机, literally means danger and opportunity. Good luck!