"Do you see any changes in organizational culture since COVID?"
Uh. Yes. ;) I get asked this a lot - I'm not entirely sure why - and my answer is almost always the same.
Yes, there are actually a lot of truly transformational changes, some fantastic, some less so, and a really big one is that in so many cases, leadership simply can no longer hide the fact that they have very little trust in their employees, and despite slogans about "Our Employees are Our Greatest Asset", they haven't put the employee at the center of ~any~ decisions for a really long time, if ever.
COVID (or "2020", the other assumed culprit) didn't create that problem. It actually did us all a favour because it ripped the bandaid right off the painful truth. A sudden increase in remote working has certainly created more uncertainty for many managers, another symptom of lack of trust. A recent study found that workers who’ve been laid off are less willing to trust others, and those doubts can linger for ten years or more even after starting a new job. It’s sobering news considering the recent pandemic that made redundancy a household word.
If you lost your job or just value a workplace with a culture of trust, there are ways to build that sense of community. Consider these suggestions for steps you can take yourself and qualities you can look for in your next employer.
Steps to Take for Building Trust in the Workplace
1. Set conditions. Memories of a security guard escorting you or your colleagues out of the building are bound to make you a little skeptical about management. Keep in mind that healthy trust is different from a blank check. Open up while maintaining sensible limits, like saying no to forced overtime or destructive gossip.
2. Give trust. Trust is a two-way street. By offering trust to your colleagues, you’re more likely to receive their confidence in return. Train yourself to start from a place of assuming good intentions, rather than a place of fear. (Easier said than done, but it CAN be done.)
3. Live up to your word. Align your actions with your speech. Let your supervisor know they can count on you when you say you’ll complete a proposal before the final deadline or resolve a customer complaint. Personal accountability is a fantastic trait. Consider making this a part of team charters or "ground rules" for meetings – now you have a whole set of accountability partners built right in to your work environment!
4. Express gratitude. Small gestures matter too. In fact, they tend to make a bigger difference than grand ones, partly because we can engage in them multiple times a day – it adds up! Thank the receptionist who wishes you a cheerful good morning. Bring back souvenirs for the office mate who checked your email while you were away on vacation. Try starting the habit of expressing gratitude to at least three people every day, and watch how your own attitude (and theirs) improves!
5. Share credit. Most victories are team efforts. Show your colleagues that you understand and appreciate the role that they play in putting together a board meeting or cleaning up the break room. And share opportunities, too. The old scarcity mindset is damaging to a healthy culture.
6. Communicate in person. Technology saves time, but it can also create distance. When possible, drop by someone’s office instead of sending them a text message. Or at least turn on the camera if you’re in a Zoom or Teams meeting! It makes a world of difference.
7. Value relationships. The quality of your relationships determines the level of trust you’ll enjoy around the office. Treat others with respect and compassion. Be willing to compromise on individual issues so you can maintain positive office relationships. Even better, familiarize yourself with tools like “Crucial Conversations” or “Nonviolent Communication” so you can have the hard conversations AND maintain positive relationships.
Qualities to Look for in an Employer
1. Assess turnover. Trust and engagement are closely related, and engaged workers tend to stay on the job longer. Ask about the turnover rate when considering a job offer to avoid joining a long line of predecessors with short tenures. (If they don’t want to share that information, check out the reviews on sites like Glassdoor, Indeed, or Blind. In fact, do that anyway! Just keep in mind happy people don’t usually leave reviews, and take that bias into consideration.)
2. Proceed from the ground up. Trust is part of the job description at each level in an organization. Feeling comfortable with your supervisor and the co-workers you’ll see daily may be more important than any statements from the CEO (although toxic leadership really is a major red flag, so stay vigilant).
3. Encourage innovation. Openness to new ideas is a good sign that team members trust each other. Are suggestions greeted with enthusiasm? Are employees commended for trying to increase quality and save money regardless of whether their proposals need some refining?
4. Practice fairness. Another indication of high levels of trust is a commitment to justice and fair play. Do the same rules and discipline procedures apply to entry-level employees and top management? Are employees empowered to use their own discretion and judgment to complete assignments? How's the DE&I landscape?
5. Reward competence. Naturally, trust thrives when you and your employer believe in your ability to do the job. Employers who provide training and constructive feedback may help you to put your redundancy behind you and move on with greater confidence.
Just like in our personal relationships, the realization that trust is broken can be pretty traumatic, so take the time and effort you need to heal. The good news is that you can learn to trust again – and so can your leadership, if they’re willing to do the work, too. Whether you decide to look for a fresh start or decide it’s worth investing in improving the culture in your current space, your actions can help you to put your career back on track and become a valued member wherever you land!