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Resetting trust in work

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The pandemic cast a spotlight on much-hyped corporate purpose statements. In the glare of scrutiny, when the chips were down, organisations saw an uncomfortable question come to the fore: were they living up to the ideals they espoused? Some clearly weren’t.

Remote working has shown that many managers and businesses struggle to trust workers when out of sight. Or indeed expect them to work relentlessly. Investment bank Goldman Sachs recently made headlines for the horrendous workloads of its younger staff, some of whom were burning out due to hellish 18-hour shifts.

Crisis tends to hold a mirror up to organisational ethics and responsibilities, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly revealing when it comes to what organisations say about their responsibilities towards their employees and other stakeholders and what they actually do when times get tough. In some ways the uncertainty and resource scarcity frequently associated with crisis events magnify what is and what isn’t working within an organisation, says Dr Layla Branicki, senior lecturer in HRM and organisation studies at The Open University Business School.

“In a recent study my co-authors Dr Senia Kalfa and professor Stephen Brammer and I found evidence to suggest that if there was underlying antagonism between employers and employees about pay and conditions prior to COVID-19 the chances are that these experiences have been intensified throughout the crisis,” says Branicki. “In contrast, for some organisations their handling of COVID-19 suggests a congruence between their values and actions, as they have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide safe and flexible working conditions during the crisis.”

It’s important to underline that while there have been notable examples of organisations squandering trust, many employers have succeeded in burnishing their reputation during the pandemic. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer goes so far as to describe employers as a “mainstay of trust” given that globally they outperform governments and the media, with business more trusted than government in 18 of 27 countries. Notably, trust in ‘my employer’, at 76%, scores even higher than trust in business in general (61%).

HR has to be a guardian of culture and purpose, but every part of the organisation needs to do the same. HR is, however, uniquely positioned to facilitate that culture by keeping a finger on the pulse of employee sentiment, helping the organisation hold itself accountable for how well culture and purpose are penetrating.

“Overall, the employee experience is key to trust,” observes Heather Cooper, chief people officer at financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown. “As we’re coming out of lockdown, we’re really making sure to listen to colleagues about what they need, whether that results in recruiting more staff into service areas or making sure there is a hybrid model of home and office working in the future. I’m laser-focused on assisting managers in continuing to create the right culture throughout the colleague journey, from the point where we put out a job advert through to when colleagues leave us or retire.”

The rise of environmental, social and governance (ESG) as a factor in investment decision making means businesses that cannot substantiate the claims they make regarding sustainability are skating on very thin ice. Alan May, chief people officer at information technology firm Hewlett Packard Enterprise, agrees that ESG is of increasing interest to both directors and investors. In his view, a big part of ESG is how you treat people – internal and external to the organisation. Building a culture of trust therefore isn’t a ‘nice to have’ – stakeholders today expect it. It may be that, just over 50 years since economist and Noble laureate Milton Friedman argued that the business of business is to make a profit the dial is finally shifting towards value being determined by improving outcomes for a broader set of stakeholders, such as an organisation’s workers, suppliers and society as a whole.

“HR has to be a guardian of culture and purpose, but every part of the organisation needs to do the same,” argues May. “HR is, however, uniquely positioned to facilitate that culture by keeping a finger on the pulse of employee sentiment, helping the organisation hold itself accountable for how well culture and purpose are penetrating.”

HR professionals often find themselves stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place of employer and employee interests, and this has been particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis has precipitated the need for both urgent HR actions – such as enabling a rapid move to mass homeworking – and what will likely be enduring changes to how and where work is done while refraining from monitoring homeworkers through technology or regular online meetings to check noses were kept to the grindstone.

While HR professionals have played a key role in helping employees navigate these changes, they have also been directly affected by them. A recent Open University Business School study found that some HR managers were themselves experiencing workplace precarity. Under certain conditions, this made it difficult for them to speak up against proposed changes that were not perceived as congruent with an organisation’s culture and values.

“At the same time,” says Branicki of this study, “many of the HR managers we spoke to were optimistic about a more inclusive and sustainable future and had found strategies that enabled them to feel empowered when necessary to challenge their organisation despite the challenging conditions. These strategies included articulating the long-term implications of short-term decisions, leveraging the external perceptions of organisational actions, and handling uncertainty on behalf of other employees. COVID-19 shows us that HR managers continue to play a pivotal role in determining how responsible organisations and their leaders continue to be.”

Dr Oleg Konovalov, author of THE VISION CODE: How To Create And Execute A Compelling Vision For Your Business, takes the view that ‘resetting’ trust involves three critical elements: listening to people, confidence and credibility, and enabled decision making. People will, he maintains, engage only if the company is fully engaged in them. If no care exists in relation to employees, then no engagement can be expected in return.

“Care is a verb expressing actions for others, in which involvement in people, concern for their future, emotional comfort, physical comfort and safety are critical elements,” says Konovalov. “The real nature of the company and its vision is seen in its ability to care for people. No team can execute a vision if the culture is fragmented and everyone is pulling in his or her own direction. Only people who combine their energy together can achieve great goals.”

Paul Hucknall, HR director at wealth management company Quilter, concurs on the importance of listening, asserting that the best businesses are the ones that took time to listen to their people when the world went into lockdown. The process of “active listening”, he elaborates, is taken seriously at Quilter, including through weekly micro-surveys to check sentiment among its people on a range of issues.

These employee soundings play into many of the FTSE-250 company’s initiatives, one of which is the development of its Thrive wellbeing programme. Hucknall also believes the thorny issue of reward has a big impact on trust and that many businesses need to take a more holistic view on remuneration. “In terms of reward, there have been numerous examples in recent history of poorly designed incentive schemes that put short term rewards ahead of other stakeholders and have decimated consumer trust. And while that trust arrived on foot, it leaves on an express train. To build back trust, remuneration should be linked to the values you expect people to uphold and designed to promote reward structures that encourage appropriate behaviour, avoid excessive risk taking and support the creation of sustainable value.”

Manufacturing conglomerate Halma was named Britain’s Most Admired Company in 2020. Unsurprisingly, the business is big on purpose, which it articulates succinctly as growing a safer, cleaner, healthier future for everyone, every day. Jennifer Ward, chief talent and communications officer, says the board plays a vital role in ensuring the group’s alignment with its values, purpose and strategy, offering constructive challenge and diversity of thought. Because of the strategic importance of purpose to Halma’s strategy, the board plays an active role in ensuring that as the business grows, it does so in a way that fulfils its purpose. Part of this entails maintaining a constructive and ongoing dialogue with investors increasingly focused on ESG issues.

In keeping with Konovalov’s point on enabled decision making being a fundamental criterion for building trust, Halma is a big believer in empowering its workforce. “Our model is to bet on talented people and allow them to make critical strategic and operational decisions,” says Ward. “This fundamentally places the trust at all levels in our organisation and our belief is that our employees will do the right thing. We have also found that establishing peer networks – where employees can connect and share their experiences and best practice across the globe – is an effective way to empower.”

It’s easier to sustain trust than it is to repair it and this poses a significant responsibility challenge because without trust it’s unlikely that employees will feel empowered to hold their organisation to account. While resetting trust is massively challenging, taking an inclusive approach to decision making that involves not only employees but other key stakeholders can be a useful first step, as it signifies that an organisation is willing to have the challenging conversations necessary to move forward.

“Silencing dissent and concealing conflict may seem to reduce antagonism between stakeholders in the short run but, as the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, organisational problems seldomly stay hidden,” says Branicki. “The true path to trust comprises openness, employee care and empowerment and consistent adherence to corporate values.”

The Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures group (REEF) is proud to be partnering with The People Space. This article was originally published on The People Space website; click to read the original article.

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