Rowan O Grady President, Hays Canada

In just a matter of weeks, the world of work has been shaken by more change and uncertainty than it has experienced in an entire generation. The COVID-19 crisis is forcing organisations around the world to transform their business models, find new ways of working and question their very purpose in what feels like the blink of an eye.

Establishing trust is key when leading through a crisis

For many employees, this feels like an unsettling and worrying time, with the future feeling somewhat unknown. So, now is the crucial time for leaders to provide their people with the support and reassurance they need to feel engaged and energised in their work. A key part of ensuring this support and reassurance is delivered in a meaningful, authentic way that really resonates, is that there must be a level of mutual trust established between yourself and your team.

In fact, in a research paper exploring the influence of trust on leadership effectiveness during a crisis, Dr Markus C. Hasel discussed how an “unanticipated development” can lead to an employee losing trust in their leader. So, it could be assumed that during the unanticipated COVID-19 pandemic, your relationships with your team members may have suffered from a reduction in trust – simply due to the crisis itself. Added to this is the sudden introduction of remote work, whereby your team may feel as though they need to almost prove themselves, and how productive they are being whilst working from the comfort of their own homes and juggling multiple responsibilities.

Does your newly remote team have trust issues?

So, how do you really feel about your people being partially or fully based at home, potentially for the long haul? Do you have full trust and confidence in them? A couple of months ago, the idea of increased levels of remote work within your team may have made you feel uneasy – after all, that would mean much less (physical) sight of what your employees are working on. But, perhaps, you’re beginning to adjust to remote leadership, whereby you are solely judging employee performance on their output, rather than the number of hours sat at a desk, and are seeing productivity levels rise as a result.

With this workplace shift comes new leadership demands; an enforced ‘letting go’ of some of your micro-managing tendencies. Did your employee login and start working at their exact start time this morning? Have they spent the last 20 minutes chatting to their housemate? Did they take a longer lunch break today to relieve a partner of childcare duties? Who knows.

You must learn to shake off these untrusting thoughts and assumptions if you and your team are to succeed in the new era of work, whereby remote work will no doubt be much more common. As this Harvard Business Review article explains, employees who feel trusted by their employer “are higher performers and exert extra effort, going above and beyond role expectations.” So, for the benefit of both your people and of your organisation, now and in the future, you need to invest time in showing your employees that you trust them and recognise their value.

The benefits of demonstrating trust in your people

Put simply by Dr Dennis. Reina et al., “teams do not perform well without trust”; it’s a vital ingredient in any team, no matter what challenges and disruption they’re going through. Showing your people that you trust them will improve your team dynamics as we prepare to enter this new era of work, and will bring a multitude of other benefits, including:

  • Engagement and team morale – it’s likely your team could be feeling less motivated than usual because of all the change in their personal and work lives. Maintaining morale is difficult at the best of times, not least when teams are working miles apart from each other, with their only interactions being virtual. But using this opportunity to really demonstrate your trust in your team will help them to feel more valued and, importantly, work better as a newly remote or hybrid team. After all, as Melinda Starbird, Vice President of People and Culture at Auth0, explains: “when employees feel valued and vested, they are part of something bigger and work for the benefit of the company, not just for themselves as individuals”. It’s unlikely that teams will all be in one office at any given time for a while, so devoting time to building trust in creative ways, in order to boost motivation and morale is essential – as the “normal” world of work activities such as team lunches or after-work drinks are going to remain off the cards for a while.
  • Employee empowerment – if an employee feels as though their manager trusts them and has full faith that they will continue to be as productive, whether they are working in the office, from their kitchen table or wherever they may be, they will feel empowered – without feeling as though they need to prove themselves to you, and continually evidence their productivity. Employee empowerment isn’t only essential for improving how confident, respected and proud your employees feel right now, it will also be imperative in the new era of work when business models are changing, so that employees feel empowered to deliver these changes. In addition, employee empowerment has been proven, as discussed by Harvard Business Review, to lead to stronger job performance, job satisfaction, and commitment to the organisation – something all companies need from their people during (and after) this turbulent time.
  • A feeling of autonomy and improved wellbeing – as Dr Kevin Teoh illustrated in a recent blog, autonomy is one of our basic psychological needs. Autonomy is about “having freedom, influence and control over what we are doing”. Trusting your employees to control their working days and decide how they will spend their time, no matter where they are physically working, provides them with this vital feeling of autonomy – something Kevin discusses will help to maintain their mental wellbeing during this difficult time and as we prepare to enter a new era of work.
  • In turn, they will trust you too – as explained in this Harvard Business Review article: “trust begets trust. When people are trusted, they tend to trust in return. But people must feel trusted to reciprocate trust.” Trust is a key ingredient to building a strong and respecting relationship, but you must remember that it’s not enough to only know in your own mind you trust team members; you need to clearly demonstrate this to them, by following the below five steps.

Five ways to show your team that you trust them

1. Provide your employees with the autonomy to carve out a routine that works for them in a new hybrid working world

Perhaps, once the lockdown restrictions have eased, some of your people need to remain at home to look after relatives or young children, so coming to the office isn’t an option for them right now, nor can they commit to their usual working hours due to their carer commitments? Or perhaps some employees are feeling too anxious about the virus to come back into the office again? But if they would like to come back to the office, they may want to arrive at work later than usual, so as to avoid busy public transport? No matter the situation, where possible, provide them with the flexibility to decide what works for them. As Hays UK Director Karen Young said: “so long as the work gets done, it doesn’t matter when it happens… After all, performance isn’t judged on how long someone sits at their desk each day, it’s judged on the output produced and value delivered.” This will demonstrate to your employees that you trust their decision making, and know that they will complete their work, regardless of when or where this happens.

2. Invest in your employees’ learning and development

It’s important you use this time to reflect on your team’s skills and explore how your individual employees could be upskilling in order to develop their own careers, and to future-proof your team for the changing demands of the new era of work. After all, as this Harvard Business Review article discusses: “letting employees know you are willing to invest in their potential and advocate for them conveys confidence and trust”. This is something that William Craig, founder and president of WebFX, also believes in – commenting that investing in your people’s development will mean employees feel valued and trust their employer, henceforth making them less likely to move to another company.

So, take steps to create personalised development plans for each member of your team, and dedicate time to researching training platforms or webinars that will aid your employees in reaching their goals. This will also feed into the feeling of empowerment I previously mentioned, as your employees will be assured that you care about, and are dedicated to, their development; helping them to prepare for the future to the best of your ability.

3. Involve employees in your problem-solving conversations

It’s likely that you’re currently facing new challenges that you’ve never faced before and are having to make decisions on things you never thought you’d need to. Maybe you’re responsible for helping to plan the return to work strategy? Or perhaps you’re needing to explore new business routes as a result of changing demands of the market? Whatever your challenges may be, when looking for solutions or creative new ideas, ask your team for their opinions. This will show them that you value their ideas and trust their judgement.

Not only this, but by involving employees in decision making at this crucial time, you are keeping them informed of how the business may be changing – such as any alterations to strategic objectives, or updates to your return to the workplace plans. This will help to develop your team’s trust in you as a manager, and will also improve motivation – as Karen Young recently discussed: “if you keep employees in the dark during this crisis, you risk them picking up on rumours and jumping to the wrong conclusions. In my experience, it’s when this miscommunication (or lack of communication) happens that people will begin to feel negative, morale gets affected and motivation and productivity suffers”.

4. Don’t blame your team for failures or mistakes

The changing demands and challenges that the crisis brings – and will continue to bring – are likely to result in your employees needing to undertake tasks and responsibilities that they may have no previous experience of. Many have spoken about how our working world will never look the same again post-crisis, so your employees need to feel comfortable and trusted when taking on new challenges, as this is likely to be the new norm going forward. So, you need to reframe your team’s mindset to one of confidence and optimism, with no reason to fear failure. This will highlight your trust in them; knowing that they will not be punished or blamed if something doesn’t quite go to plan.

Creating a ‘blame’ or ‘call-out’ culture will not make your employees feel trusted – rather, it will make them feel fearful and anxious about slipping up, therefore building a risk-averse culture which will not serve your organisation well in the future. Instead, make it clear to your people that any failures or mistakes are merely growth and learning opportunities. As a result, your team will feel confident in themselves, knowing that you are not going to blame them for any faults or mistakes, and that you trust them to push themselves out of their comfort zones and explore their potential.

5. Think and act like a collective

Right now, a feeling of togetherness is exactly what your team will be craving. It’s been weeks, months in fact, of challenges, changes and disruption. The sudden switch to working remotely all day, every day will have taken a toll on your employees. And now they’re facing new anxieties and concerns about possibly transitioning back to the office.

As I’ve touched on, many teams are likely to see the introduction of hybrid working; with some of their co-workers remaining at home, and others moving back to the office. But as good as technology is in bringing us together to communicate and collaborate effectively in this new era of work, it’s probable that your team members could be feeling a little isolated, sometimes even lonely, due to how different their everyday working life now looks.

That’s why it’s so important you as a leader make it clear in everything that you do that you are one team – not a group of individuals. For example, when presenting your work or discussing it with other departments within the business, use pronouns such as “we” and “us” to show your employees that you are a team – a team in which every member is valued and contributes. This will also show that you recognise the work they’re doing and how it all adds up into the wider picture of what you’re able to produce together. Demonstrating this belief in your people will communicate to them your trust; you trust their value and input into the team.

It’s vital for you to recognise that now, more than ever, it’s essential that you as a leader, leading through a crisis, must show your team that you trust them. After all, we’re moving towards a defining new era of work, an era in which much of what we once knew will be turned on its head. So, by trusting your people to be productive and deliver value, you are, in turn, demonstrating to them that you respect them, and count on them as valued members of your team, both now and in the future.


Rowan O’Grady is the President of Hays North America.

Rowan began his career with Hays in 1995, joining Construction & Property (C&P) in London, on the Trades & Labour desk, before helping to establish C&P in Dublin when it opened in 1996.

He was promoted through to regional manager, and then joined the team that  spearheaded Hays’ entry to the Canadian market in 2001. Rowan left Canada in 2004, to return to Hays in Ireland but returned in April 2009 to oversee all of Canada.