Global HR

Building Trust and Accountability In Remote Work Environments

June 14, 2022
March 8, 2024
Camille Hogg
Lattice Team

We’ve reached the point where remote work is longer a hypothetical scenario. The ‘future of work’ has become the now of work. Need proof? A 2021 GitLab survey found that 52% of employees would leave a co-located role if they were offered a remote one. While a Jobvite survey found that 35% of candidates would turn down a role that required them to work onsite. 

Study after study reports that remote work makes employees globally more productive and motivated. When done well, it can also make us happier.

For senior leaders who are leading remote teams for the first time, navigating this shift may seem a little daunting. But we have to remember that the last two years were not a great benchmark for how remote working should operate.

Leading successful remote companies in the wake of this changing landscape for work relies on creating new norms and processes that have trust and accountability at the core. To do that, organisations must focus on their communication, create intentional policies around work/life balance, and give their employees the autonomy to manage their goals.

Why Trust Is Essential To Leading Remote Teams

In workplace-based environments, trust often goes hand-in-hand with visibility. After all, when employees can be seen at their desks or in meetings between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., they’re probably working. But in a remote environment, it's easy to assume all bets are off in understanding how your employees spend their time. 

As organisations make the shift to remote working, many leaders who were used to managing people in a co-located environment have been left wondering how to manage a now-invisible workforce. 

As a result, many simply replicated the principles of office-based work into a remote working context in the best way they knew how. Employee response times became the new benchmark to gauge which employees were working the hardest. The green ‘online’ light on Slack became a new measure of how many hours of work employees were putting in. Employee performance, meanwhile, was often measured by output and tasks completed.

This isn’t just a problematic approach in the short-term, it won’t foster trust long-term — and it won’t set remote leaders or teams up for success. 

Instead, working in these ways creates an environment where employees feel like they’re being monitored and micromanaged. A 2021 meta-analysis backs this up; when employees are monitored at work, it increases stress, decreases job satisfaction, and increases their likelihood of quitting. Most importantly, it significantly erodes trust.

“Surveillance — whether checking for ‘butts on seats’ by eye or measuring response time online — is the inverse of trust", explained Jordan Husney, CEO and founder of Parabol, a meeting platform for remote teams. “[This] management culture emanates from a simpler time when [job] tasks and responsibilities were more certain: the assembly line. In the knowledge economy, nearly every job requires an element of creativity. Creativity needs agency, and agency requires trust. Agency and trust are even more important in a remote context.”

Adam Smith, CEO and co-founder of Workbounce, a sales enablement platform, agreed: “Trust is the foundation of collaboration. Whether you’re working remotely or not, the way you lead needs to start from a position of trust. If you don’t have trust, you’ll fall into damaging leadership tactics, like micromanaging your team or monitoring their online status.”

Managing remote teams requires two-way trust to work.

In a remote working environment, where we have fewer face-to-face meetings and human touchpoints, trust and accountability aren’t just important — they’re paramount.

When employees feel trusted at work, they report higher levels of motivation, productivity, life satisfaction, and engagement. Crucially, they also demonstrate lower levels of stress, absenteeism, and burnout. They’re also more receptive to organisational change.

Fostering trust and accountability among remote team members requires senior leaders and managers to move away from the mindset that employee visibility equates to productivity. And to truly fuel a successful remote-first culture, trust must be mutual. Because when employees feel trusted, they’ll give trust in return.

Husney suggested the best way to build trust and accountability starts with empowering autonomy and decision-making for every remote team member from day one.

“When your employees can’t see each other, or are working together from different time zones, they need more access to information and systems", he said. “They need more autonomy to make decisions so they don’t get stuck.

“Everything at Parabol is structured around establishing belief in one another", Husney added. “Once trust is in place, we maintain it by pushing autonomy into the hands of each individual. We use an asynchronous decision-making process [that] distributes authority among team members to make decisions — we call it ‘trust by default’. By distributing trust and decision-making in this way, it helps leaders lead by enabling team members.”

Strategies For Building Trust and Accountability

Trust and accountability are an essential foundation of creating a remote working environment that works for both leaders and employees. But trust is hard to win — and even harder to maintain.

So how do you get started building a foundation of trust and accountability that enables your team to work their best remotely? Here are some key ways to start moving forward.

1. Set clear expectations around communication.

Creating a successful remote working environment hinges on good communication.

In an office-based working environment, communication and knowledge-sharing happens in real-time. It’s informed by face-to-face meetings, water cooler conversations, and spinning around in your chair to ask someone a quick question. 

These natural communication rhythms don’t work the same way in a remote context. Communication ranges from synchronous virtual team meetings to asynchronous chats on Slack, and comments in shared documents. Information becomes siloed, leaving employees to piece together clues without the body language or conversational cues that provide tone and context.

And even when your remote employees do get on a Zoom or Microsoft Teams call together, there’s still a difference in experience that can mean some messages get lost in translation.

For Husney, setting the right communication norms that worked for his remote team is a work in progress.

“Our communication norms are a mishmash of intent and experimentation", he said. “We default to writing things down over oral communication. We default to sharing information in public channels, and minimise direct messages. We also encourage folks to search before asking a question.

“And if all else fails, we know we can call a synchronous meeting", he added. “Our team today values the relative lack of meetings at our company, but one of our initial challenges was that we ended up relying too much on asynchronous communication, and we forgot that we could call a meeting.”

Like Husney, Adam Smith and his team have implemented asynchronous communication norms at Workbounce. This, Smith said, fosters increased trust that employees are being measured by their outcomes, not their response times.

“As a remote, asynchronous team, we communicate mainly on Slack", he said. “We tell everyone in our team to set their Slack status to ‘Away’ by default, because working remotely requires you to move away from the mentality that everyone is always available to respond immediately or hop on a call. If you trust that your team is going to deliver in the long-term, you shouldn’t really be worried about the green dot next to their profile picture.”

2. Set clear goals that foster accountability.

Goals are the engine of a highly motivated, high-performing remote team. Molly George, CEO and founder at Kickstand Communications, keeps accountability high by setting clear, realistic and specific goals with her remote team, while driving a culture that focuses on outcomes, not output.

“Accountability is really baked into every aspect of our operations", she explained. “A few things we do to ensure alignment on goals and ownership include having tailored performance rubrics for each individual, representative of both their expected performance but also inclusive of their personal career goals and actions to progress them to drive mutual accountability between reports and managers. Our reports meet with their managers once a week and set their agenda for the meeting.”

Implementing a collaborative goal-setting process can be an impactful way for remote teams to keep employees motivated from a distance. Research shows when managers include employees as part of the goal-setting process, they’re almost four times more likely to be engaged.

3. Set aside time for regular check-ins.

When you’re working remotely as a team, you can’t rely on office-based communication norms or in-person mechanisms to stay in touch with your employees. However, setting regular touch points and check-in processes will help your employees stay aligned on goals, maintain your culture, and help surface any potential stumbling blocks before they become insurmountable.

In addition to regular synchronous one-to-one meetings and performance reviews, team leaders can implement asynchronous daily or weekly check-ins (like the Lattice Employee Updates feature) that invite their employees to reflect on goals, how they’re feeling, and identify any roadblocks without adding extra meetings to the calendar.

4. Lead with transparency.

Research shows that transparent communication has a significant positive impact on employee trust and engagement — particularly when it’s clear, assertive, and supportive.  

It’s especially important for remote working environments, where information can easily become splintered. At a fundamental level, leading with transparency means communicating in the open, staying connected with your employees, and nurturing a culture of empathy. Sometimes, it also means having a few hard conversations.

“I believe very strongly that visibility and transparent communication from the leadership team helps every team member have more trust and confidence in their leaders and the business", George said. “We hold weekly All Staff meetings where we give full team updates on [topics including] hiring, business opportunities and team changes. We also have Quarterly Business Reviews where we walk the team through performance against financial metrics and annual KPIs as well as learnings from the quarter, and give them visibility into forward-looking financial targets and hiring plans. 

“Right after COVID hit, some of those conversations were hard. But instead of shrouding things in secrecy, we brought the team closer into those business and financial conversations, so that people knew exactly where we stood,” she added.

Smith agreed, adding that empathy should be key in this approach: “To build trust remotely, you have to lead by example. You need to communicate openly and directly, and encourage feedback all the time. You also need to own your mistakes and be vulnerable — you have to show that you’re human. This approach needs to trickle down to your frontline managers, too.”

5. Monitor employee engagement, not productivity.

As organisations globally have shifted to remote or hybrid working patterns, one of the biggest concerns reported by remote leaders is how they can maintain employee productivity from a distance.

However, if you want to set your remote workers up for long-term success, then employee engagement is a far better predictor of their productivity. Why? Because when employees are highly engaged, they’re more intrinsically motivated to bring their best to work every day. That translates directly into higher performance, productivity and profitability.

By measuring and tracking employee engagement with weekly or monthly surveys, you can get a far better picture of how your remote workers are feeling about your organisation. You can identify the factors that make them work at their best, as well as the ones that are holding them back, and you can take proactive steps to improve their experience.

6. Empower employees to manage their lives, work, and wellbeing.

If you believe the old adage, we used to leave our lives at the office door. But in a remote working environment, the lines between work and life are less clear-cut. 

When you’re leading a remote team, it’s critical to empower your employees to manage their time how it works best for them. That means giving them the space and autonomy to live their lives alongside work, measuring outcomes, not hours.

“As a leader, you need to be mindful of people’s time", Smith noted. “Remote blurs the lines between work and home. Your employees might have non-work tasks demanding their attention during working hours — like taking the dog for a walk or picking up children from school.

“You have to account for the variability of peoples’ experiences of working remotely, and how their work integrates with their life", he added. “We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the ‘work’ part of the work-life balance, but less time thinking about how ‘life’ fits in with that.”

7. Co-create a remote work experience that works for everyone.

At the heart of every successful remote organisation, there’s a strong culture that knits distributed employees together. 

In remote organisations, culture isn’t found in your virtual team-building exercises or your Zoom happy hour. It’s in the intentional way you create behaviours, values, and principles that makes each employee, no matter their time zone or role, feel trusted, included, connected, and motivated to do their best work.

The best way to do that is to co-create a remote experience with your team members.

“You need to be intentional", George said. “Understand the real challenge that you're trying to solve, and then very thoughtfully map out solutions, and get team feedback along the way. We love to get inputs and feedback on internal decisions, so that we know the voices of all team members are heard equally.”

For Smith, the best remote culture is the one that works for your team, and it requires everyone’s input to make it work.

“There isn’t a ‘right’ way to do remote working", Smith said. “Everyone’s needs and priorities will differ. Some people like the social aspect of work, others prefer working in isolation…  This is why setting a prescriptive remote culture doesn’t work. Each member of our team has filled out a ‘ReadMe’ guide on how they like to work to make collaboration easier. You have to have a dialogue with your team about what’s important to them, and how you can all best work together.”

Building trust remotely relies on empowering autonomy, knowledge-sharing, and empathy.

Leading successfully in a remote working environment requires leaders to abandon the narrative that productivity is the key measure of success at work. Instead, they must focus on creating the right processes and frameworks that foster transparent communication, empathy, connection, and knowledge-sharing. A formal work-from-home policy provides clarity and consistency for both employees and the company. Check out our work-from-home policy template and get started creating or updating policies that work best for your team.

When you create a working environment where employees are given the information and autonomy to make their own decisions and employees are measured by outcomes, not output, then trust and accountability will naturally flourish. This will pave the way to long-term remote success.

Lattice helps remote and hybrid companies bring their people strategies to life by seamlessly integrating tools for engagement, performance, and analytics into their employee development programs. To learn more about how Lattice can help your people managers, request a demo.