Rebuilding Trust When Your Team Returns to the Office

Just when businesses are making plans to bring employees back to the office, a newly released global study by the Limeade Institute shows that many employees have at least some fear and anxiety about returning to the workplace.

Meanwhile, Deloitte concludes that the hesitancy to return may be driven largely by a lack of trust—toward the employer, colleagues, and others with whom an employee might interact in the workplace. 

While you can’t control everything, there are a few ways that you and your teammates can rebuild trust in ways that make the return to the office safe, satisfying and productive.

Build or Rebuild Relationships

Working from home for 15 months has permanently changed the way technologists engage, bond, communicate and work. As a result, teams that haven’t evolved collectively or embraced new members during the lockdown may now find themselves returning to an office occupied by strangers.

Our ability to trust others to do their job is based on personal connections and a history of meeting expectations (often called knowledge-based trust), explained Dr. Marie Gervais, expert on team trust and CEO of Shift Management. Over the past year, people’s lives, personalities and habits may have changed. To know whether you can trust someone to do their job, you need to get to know them by building or rebuilding relationships from the ground up.

Start by greeting people when they return to the office, engaging in team building events and asking trust-building questions. To see if a team member can remain focused and productive, ask about their sources of stress and what they need to do their best work, advised Dr. Reetu Sandhu, director, Limeade Institute. 

“Is your teammate comfortable returning to the office? Have their circumstances changes?” Sandhu asked. Identify the things that may keep them from following through on their commitments.

survey by Pew Research reveals that 89 percent of U.S. adults say that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their lives. Demonstrating empathy by listening to your teammate’s concerns, providing a safe place to work, flexible schedules, and exhibiting a desire to help are just some of the factors that lead to higher levels of team trust, suggests Mark Batson Baril, team coach and “conflict wrangler.”

When team members feel connected, they open up, rely on each other, share feedback and expose vulnerabilities. Being open and honest, and taking the initiative to start conversations, is the first step toward rebuilding relationships and trust.

Define New Ways of Working Together

At its most basic level, trust is about each member executing at a high level consistently over time. Whether they come back to the office full-time or intermittently, team leads and members need to set clear expectations and protocols for the transition period and beyond.

“Once you’ve started rebuilding relationships, the team needs to define how they will work together going forward,” Gervais said. 

Defining those work relationships is a very detail-oriented process. Will your team’s structure, roles, goals, response times or processes change? Will the way you update documentation, collaborate, conduct team meetings or resolve conflicts change if you shift to a hybrid model? What will be the protocol if someone is exposed to COVID-19?

Confusion about responsibilities and tasks destroys reliability and trust. When team members know what to expect, they are more likely to trust each other, hold each other accountable and push everyone to become better.

Replace Trust-Busting With Trust-Building Behaviors

Returning to the office presents a golden opportunity for team leaders to query their members in private, assess their team’s trust level and come up with ways to improve.

“Some teams actually increased their trust levels during the lockdown because they pulled together and found a way to create more history and increase team interaction,” Baril noted. 

However, teams that had low trust to begin with usually got worse, he added. Now’s the time to rate your team’s trust level and set new ground rules that increase transparency, unity, respect, reliability and trust. Be direct with your team. Talk openly about the results of your assessment and agree not to engage in behaviors and practices that erode trust.

For example, ask your teammates to avoid “sidebar” conversations or lobbying the boss in private for their ideas. Agree to openly discuss whatever might affect the team, from budget cuts and tight deadlines to management practices.  

Remember, trust and relationships are built by positive behaviors consistently repeated over time. Look at the return to office as an opportunity to boost your team’s trust and make your relationships stronger.