Trust is key to successful distributed work

You can't successfully operate in a distributed/remote work model unless your organization is built on trust.

So many teams and companies are wrestling with questions around if and how to continue some version of distributed/remote work, now that public health concerns may not require it any longer.

Unfortunately, these conversations often focus on the mechanics of distributed work or in-person/distributed hybrid models: how many days per week, schedules, locations, finances, technology tools and more.

These are important considerations, but without a culture of trust to start, it's like choosing the color of a bicycle that has no wheels.

Managers and supervisors need to trust the people they manage and supervise. If you don’t trust that your people are there to do their best for the success of the organization, and to figure out a way of working that fits their needs and their role or team's needs, no amount of remote work tools or tips are going to help. If you don't empower and enable people to thrive in their work, and acknowledge them when they do, a distributed work model will lead to poor performance, isolation, resentment and worse. (Tip: this is also true in in-person work environments.)

Individual contributors who work together need to trust each other. If you don't trust that your co-worker is doing their best to balance the long-term interests of the organization and their role with their own health and wellness, no amount of communication tools or stand-up meetings is going to help. If you can't be gracious and generous with your co-workers around flexible scheduling, stepping away or taking time off when they need to, offering support and encouragement, and expecting all of that for yourself as well, then a distributed work model will bring out the worst in your professional interactions and relationships.

Is it okay to "trust but verify"? Is it okay to have systems of check-ins and measurement and reviews? Sure! But these should be built on the assumption that the people being verified, checked-in on, measured and reviewed are doing their best to fulfill the goals of their position in the context of everything else going on in the organization and in their personal lives. Instead of being about punishing or scolding, they should focus on offering guidance, direction, constructive feedback, support and encouragement — again, trusting that people are there to do their best work for the long run, and helping them get there.

What if you don't have that trust? What if the people in your organization assume the worst about each other's intentions? What if you can't possibly imagine letting a co-worker decide for themselves, in consultation with their team and stakeholders, what work environment, practices, schedule, tools and timelines make the most sense given everything you're trying to accomplish together? Then there's no way you're going to be able to thrive as a distributed team, or maybe at all, until that trust is repaired or rebuilt.

Can a team work effectively in a distributed model without trust? Sure, for a while. But it comes at the expense of mental health, job satisfaction, a sense of ownership, productivity and long-term engagement. The work will eventually suffer, the people will eventually suffer, things will break. This is not the way to build or grow an organization. (Tip: this is also true in in-person work environments.)

Successful distributed work requires trust. Without it, everything else may be a waste of time.

Disclaimers, notes and further reading:

  • No, I'm not saying that in-person organizations are inherently operating without trust. Nor am I saying that the proper alternative to distributed-without-trust is in-person-without-trust. So many in-person organizations have come to equate "at your desk looking busy" with "high performing hard worker" and we need to unlearn those unhealthy models about what trust in the workplace looks like.
  • If the people you've hired don't seem trustworthy, then you may have hired the wrong people, but it's more likely that you or someone else set a bad example that everyone else is just following. Figuring out what can be salvaged is hard work, but it's essential. Abbie Moore has a great article on how to get started rebuilding trust.
  • One way you can build trust is by frequently delegating reversible and/or inconsequential decisions.
  • I personally don't think hybrid models — some people colocated in an office, some people remote — work well or are sustainable.
  • Power works differently in a distributed organization. Lean in to those differences.
  • You can't have real trust without transparency. Default to having everything happen out in the open, including how you make decisions, handle conflicts, learn from mistakes, document progress. If it's not uncomfortable, you're probably not being open enough.

Photo by Belinda Fewings

For/Against

The people who I see making the most progress in community building (at any level) are the ones who can effectively articulate the things that they are working toward, what they're for, and then get other people excited about different ways to make that happen.

The people who I see doing the most damage to community building efforts are the ones who only seem able to talk about the things they are against.

Maybe you recognize these different profiles?

For...

  • Is usually dreaming about ways to make something better
  • Celebrates existing strengths and accomplishments as a foundation to build on
  • Understands possibilities for the future, describes them well
  • Lets their ideas evolve as they get feedback
  • Connects with stakeholders and figures out how to help
  • Engages through questions, observation and collaboration

Against...

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Powerlessness and Empowerment with Frances Moore Lappé

A week ago I had the opportunity to hear Frances Moore Lappé speak here in Richmond. She's primarily known around the world as author of Diet for a Small Planet, but she's also an Earlham College graduate, so it was great that she came back to her alma mater to give a talk.

Lappé's talk overall was about how we can move from a place of powerlessness to a place of empowerment when it comes to working on addressing various ills that plague the world - from climate change to energy/resource crises to poverty, and all of the other systems and issues that are related.

It's a topic, a question that's been on my mind lately as I think about my own vocation, and where (to borrow from Frederick Buechner) my talents and interests might meet the world's deep needs. The question wasn't answered for me during the talk, but there were a few insights and random bits of wisdom that I want to preserve here:

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Our complex relationship with revolution

I've been thinking about the complex relationship that mainstream U.S. culture has with the notion of revolution.

In the abstract, we seem to celebrate the possibility of wide-reaching changes in some government or other system that affects the lives of many people.

We like things that provide a chance for a clean slate, a fresh start, a putting aside of ways that aren't working well. When we think about other countries that may have been living under oppressive regimes and then hear that they are in the midst of revolution, we probably assume that this change is leaning toward kinds of freedom and opportunities that are good for the people there. We have ourselves spent many billions of dollars on facilitating "regime change" or other dramatic shifts in power around the world. And we know that our own history as a country is full of revolutions - some peaceful, some bloody - and we take it as a given that these kinds of struggles and shifts are milestones to be remembered, if not honored.

When revolution is in the past, or in distant places, it's okay.

But when we think about revolution in the context of our own present, everyday lives, it seems we are much less tolerant of revolution.

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On maturity

Edison/Ford TreesAs a young person I was aware of the concept of maturity as something that could be sought, developed, worked on, but I was never quite sure how to measure whether or not someone had achieved maturity.

I've defined maturity in different ways throughout my life, most of them probably flawed.

Recently I've come to see maturity as a measure of someone's ability to understand the motivations of other people, to build for themselves a context about how a given situation or set of decisions has come about, and to have empathy for those motivations and that context.

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Facebook Appreciation Day?

Idea:

What if Facebook shut down once per day, every year?

Turn it all the way off. No one could get to it.  No walls, timelines, profiles, friends, games, apps or messages.

They could call it Facebook Appreciation Day.

Some people would appreciate that Facebook was off for the day and turn their attention to other things.

Some people would appreciate how much they enjoy / like / depend on Facebook the other 364 days of the year.

Facebook's servers and employees could appreciate the day off, or maybe they could do some deep cleaning.

I'm only partly joking here:

A ritual of sabbath from something that has become so engrained in modern culture, something that many people can't imagine NOT using in some form every day, could be useful.

Having everyone who uses Facebook experience it on the same day, together, would just be amazing.

What would you do on Facebook Appreciation Day?