By Ian Lavis on behalf of Praxity Global Alliance
Do you trust your employees to work well from home?
Do your employees trust you to provide enough support?
Do your clients trust you to meet their needs remotely?
Trust is more important than ever as businesses adapt to remote working, socially distanced meetings and travel restrictions.
How your organisation responds to these changing work patterns will impact employee satisfaction, wellbeing and performance as well as client relationships.
Get it right and you will create happy, motivated team capable of delivering consistently high-quality outcomes. Your workforce will feel supported and your clients will have confidence in your business.
Get it wrong and your employees and clients will feel abandoned. Performance and quality will suffer, and business will inevitably be lost.
So, what can you do to embed trust and instil confidence when so many people are working remotely and social contact is often limited to phone and video calls?
Here, we look at the main trust and confidence issues arising during the pandemic and how to overcome them to boost relationships, increase employee and client satisfaction, and boost performance levels, with examples from Praxity member firms in Australia and the US.
Trust among staff
Working remotely and more flexibly during the pandemic has placed new pressures on employees and managers, many of whom were forced to make the transition in a hurry, without adequate support or training.
Globally, remote employees face significant challenges, including creating a suitable workspace, minimising noise and disruption, caring for loved ones during the pandemic, and dealing with mental health issues such as feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
Any one of these challenges can lead to a drop in performance levels, which may bring into question the level of trust between different members of staff. It comes as no surprise that 19% of the global workforce feel their productivity and workload is being misunderstood by their employers during the pandemic, according to research by Peakon.
Managers and supervisors face exactly the same remote working challenges. Nevertheless, some can find it hard to trust their employees to work from home, especially in countries where flexible working is less embedded in company culture, or in organisations where remote working is a totally new concept.
In the worst scenarios, these same managers and supervisors may not be trusted by their bosses to work effectively when at home, reinforcing negative beliefs about flexible working in general.
This can create “a negative spiral in which manager mistrust leads to micromanagement which then leads to drops in employee motivation, further impairing productivity”, according to new research published in Harvard Business Review (HBR).
Preliminary findings from a survey conducted by the Centre for Transformative Work Design during the pandemic reveal:
- 40% of supervisors and managers expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely;
- 38% of managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office;
- 41% of managers said they were sceptical remote workers could stay motivated in the long term;
- 56% of workers reporting high levels of close monitoring said they experienced greater work-homelife conflict.
Support and education
Micromanagement is not the answer, according to the Centre for Transformative Work Design. They urge companies to be more willing to adapt to employees’ individual circumstances. They suggest organisations should focus on providing greater support for staff wellbeing, more leave, and more training on remote working challenges.
This includes educating managers about the benefits of remote working and how to effectively delegate and empower people by “checking in on” rather than “checking up on” employees. Above all, they call on managers to manage by results, being mindful of the challenges remote employees face in balancing work and homelife.
“…you need to trust your employees are doing the right thing in working from home and give them a level of authority that’s even above what you would normally…”
Greg Travers, Director of Tax Services at Australian accounting firm William Buck, says it’s about giving remote workers more responsibility. He explains: “As a leader, I feel you need to trust your employees are doing the right thing in working from home and give them a level of authority that’s even above what you would normally, which I’ve found has been widely reciprocated. I also think it’s important to focus on results rather than input. At no point am I worried when staff are starting, and finishing work each day if they’re doing quality work and getting results.
“My role within the team has changed quite significantly both as an outcome of my team shifting to remote work, and as a driver of enhanced processes. For example, giving my team more responsibility and control over certain work has freed my time up to provide support and assistance where it’s required. I now have a lot more availability to help than I did prior to coronavirus and remote working.”
Trusting and supporting employees in this way requires clear communication channels so everyone is aware of what’s expected and can raise any issues.
Greg continues: “Initially, we had regular interactions and daily team meetings. We even set up a support matrix so that each person had several others in the team they could check in with. The purpose was to replicate that support structure that exists in-office. However, as time went by, people became comfortable managing their time and workload and these more formal catchups weren’t as necessary.”
Building trust remotely has been easier for organisations that had already embraced flexible working and digital transformation prior to the pandemic.
Wenli Wang, Partner in charge of the San Francisco office at US accounting firm Moss Adams, says an established flexible working culture and trusting employees to work from home meant the shift to 100% home working during lockdown at Moss Adams was “amazingly smooth” all things considered.
She explains: “We had some slight delays the first week or two due to equipment and technology issues, but otherwise, we really did not skip a beat. We have maintained at a relatively high level of efficiency and productivity since then.
“…traditional strategies to gain and maintain our teams’ trust need to be adjusted”
“Trusting our team has been a given on the leadership side. We encourage the team to have flexible schedules because of various family situations they may have to deal with, such as assisting a school-age child with lessons during the day, inserting a morning run in between meetings, or running to the grocery store during the working day to avoid the crowd.
“With Covid-19, a lot of the traditional strategies to gain and maintain our teams’ trust need to be adjusted. As leaders, we have learned to be much more intentional in this area. We won’t run into each other in the kitchen to talk about our weekends or our recent trips. Video calls can be exhausting. How to stay connected with our teams and have their trust in us is an issue that constantly stays on our mind.”
Conversations with substance
Apart from making sure the logistical side of working home is well taken care of, leaders at Moss Adams do regular check-in calls, ask open ended questions, and have “conversations with substance”.
Wenli explains: “When I ask ‘how are you doing’, I don’t stop with an ‘I am doing fine’ answer. I try to dig deeper to find out what ‘fine’ means. Is it truly fine? We encourage the teams to share with us their challenges of working remotely and we take customized approaches to solve their individual problems. We have divided the teams into smaller groups and have organized on-line happy hours, games, and ‘fireside’ chats. We take notes of suggestions and do our best to take actions on them. This definitely is a work in progress. We continue looking for better strategies and have an open mind so we keep improving in this area!
Trust among clients
The global shift to remote working has also presented new challenges for leaders seeking to develop and maintain strong client relationships.
Face-to-face meetings, networking and socialising have been virtually impossible in many countries for a large chunk of 2020 and international business travel remains difficult if not impossible.
This presents external trust issues whereby clients may feel they are not being looked after, or understood, as well as they could be.
To keep clients on board and strengthen relationships during the pandemic, organisations need to listen carefully to customer needs and be more empathetic, according to global consultancy McKinsey.
In a report on connectivity during times of crisis, McKinsey analysts highlight a switch of focus to customers’ primary needs, such as safety, security, and everyday convenience.
They add: “These actions will inevitably speak louder than words in a world where companies are increasingly advertising a message of ‘we are here for you’. By consciously providing empathy and care during this crisis, companies can build a foundation of goodwill and long-lasting emotional connections with the communities they serve.”
The consultancy suggests seven ways to “emotionally connect” with customers:
- Minimise risk by reducing physical interaction
- Actively contribute to safety by innovating the product portfolio
- Provide pragmatic help to customers in financial distress
- Bring joy and support the emotional needs of customers ‘trapped at home’
- Actively shift customers to online channels
- Stay reachable and treat customers with care in personal interactions
- Demonstrate care for the community through company values
A shift to online channels and generally being more reachable can help build trust and drive collaboration locally, regionally and globally.
“Gaining greater trust from clients has occurred quite organically as a result of video conferencing and increased availability”
“Gaining greater trust from clients has occurred quite organically as a result of video conferencing and increased availability,” Greg says, adding “Where we used to hold, say, an hour-long meeting with a client each week or fortnight, we’re now able to contact our clients far more often because they’re also working remotely, with a more flexible schedule. This means we chat more frequently so trust is built alongside a more personal relationship, and we can share experiences. For example, I’ve seen many of my clients’ lounge rooms now, as they have mine. And we can share the experience of being on a call while picking our kids up from school. Everyone is in this together and that’s really evident.
“Our digital readiness and rapid response to the shift in working style also helped to maintain our clients’ trust because they experienced little to no inconvenience. With video conferencing, soft phones and technology in general, we are achieving in a matter of weeks what previously would’ve taken us years in a ‘normal’ working environment. We have more regular communication now. It’s timelier, more effective, and we get more touch points with the client as a consequence.”
Linking up online “has been hugely beneficial” for referrals, he says, adding: “Praxity member firms and their clients are now very comfortable to get on a video call to work through matters. It’s an expectation now and the outcome is a much more effective and collaborative. And that really goes a long way to dealing with the inherent changes of having people spread across the world trying to work together.”
Building trust externally is also about being agile and responsive, according to Wenli. She explains: “We have been looking for alternatives to stay connected with our clients to make sure they know we want to take the best care of them. We try to reach out to our clients more proactively to share any relevant planning strategies with them. We are more responsive to their needs. We schedule regular check-in calls and stay updated with the happenings on the client side.
“Depending on the industry, the impact of Covid-19 on our clients can be drastically different. We try to find ways to mitigate the financial hit with the clients who are impacted negatively. As a result, we actually have strengthened our relationships with many clients.”
Organisations need to be flexible and empathetic, both internally and externally, to achieve high levels of trust during this strange and remote time.
But that’s only part of the story. In April 2020, Harvard Business Review (HBR) published five key strategies to help companies weather crises and preserve relationships. They call it HEART:
- Humanize your company
- Educate about change
- Assure stability
- Revolutionize offerings
- Tackle the future
HEART provides guidelines on what to say — and what not to say — during sustained crises. It emphasizes making current and potential clients aware of your organisation’s plan for supporting them and providing new value that they might require.
Tifphani White-King, Principal and National Tax Leader at Mazars in the US, says these guidelines are highly relevant during Covid-19 and can be adapted to professional services.
Commenting on the human aspect, she says firms need to show they “have a heart” by adapting the HBR framework as follows:
- Humanize by being empathetic to what your teams and clients are experiencing during this time. There is no one size, fits all solution with respect to this pandemic. Everyone’s situation is unique and needs a bespoke address that puts a human touch on bottom line business challenges.
- Educate by sharing with our teams and clients how we as professional service providers are adapting, how our business offerings are evolving, and how these changes will benefit them.
- Assure by reinforcing that our five-star service, quality standards, integrity, risk management and trusted advisor relationship is unwavering – in fact, even more resolute
- Revolutionize with innovate bespoke solutions. Whether its audit, tax, advisory, legal or consulting, professional services, firms are innovating with technology and finding creative ways to connect and serve our people.
- Tackle the future by collaborating and partnering with our teams and clients into a new future state.
If you have a heart, now is the time to show it – for greater trust, better performance, stronger relationships and, above all, happier people.