At the recent ITWC Digital Transformation Conference, Chris Mullens, Executive Director of the Workforce Institute, UKG, shared his thoughts on how AI and analytics are enabling organizations to pivot quickly, keep people safe and connected, and provide management with instant access to trends. Technology writer Steve Prentice was on hand and shared his thought on what he heard.
The past eighteen months have taught us all a great deal about the nature of work, with so much of the workforce having been simultaneously lifted out of the office and deposited back in their homes, with none of us – employees, managers, and HR practitioners alike – truly prepared to handle the change. Of the thousands of lessons that can be extracted from this global shift, one of the most prescient has to do with trust.
For the first time on such a scale, workers had to learn how to self-direct their workflows – many likely had dreamed of this moment for years. Managers and leaders had to figure out how to manage people that they could not see, at least by walking around.
There were stories of companies who used their technology to keep an eye on their teams, by installing keyloggers and other tools to ensure that employees were at their keyboards and were carrying out their tasks as expected. Needless to say, such intrusive devices were not well-received.
Trust between employees and their managers is a hybrid of emotion (you must feel trust) paired with knowledge (you must know enough about a person to trust them). Leaders have relied on face-to-face meetings and observation of their teams to establish trust, but many employees have spent much of their time never feeling trusted, even in the old normal office space, nor feeling trust for their managers, despite the meetings and MBWA best practices.
This discrepancy has now been laid bare. It was never about open office layouts, cloud-based collaboration technology or team building days. The vital issue of trust, in both directions, remains a very human thing, and now we have all seen two different types of working lives – in office and from home – and as we contemplate the future – back-to-the-office, or more likely hybrid work structures, the opportunity to rebuild a proactive trust model is at hand.
It is vital to remember that even before lockdown, there was consensus among economists, consulting firms and groups as large as the World Economic Forum that suggested significant changes that would be coming to the workforce in a matter of a few short years. These included increased work-from-home and work-life balance demands from employees, more freelancing and gig-economy careers, and significantly increased career mobility among all age groups, but particularly younger professionals. These are workers who know there is other work available out there, and who are unafraid to leave an environment that lacks the trust and dignity they seek.
For decades we have turned to new technologies to make companies and teams more efficient, from the typewriter right through to today’s AI-enhanced environments. But often these tools are presented to teams as just a new hammer to replace the old hammer. There was an expectation that improved trust and engagement would develop naturally as a result of using these new and improved devices.
The technologies we have available today are becoming more versatile and intelligent while simultaneously becoming less costly to use. They allow us to break through the walls that separate tasks from relationships in the workplace. A case in point: We are all used to video chat meetings by now. But how many managers use virtual spaces for MBWA? These are online rooms used not for formalized meetings, but a place where people just “are,” like a virtual version of the office – a place where you can wander over and have that spontaneous chat, or simple talk about the weekend – reinforcing social bonds and trust even with work-from-home employees.
The return from the pandemic can be seen as a new beginning for employees and leaders alike. Those who fear they are losing a vital social component by not having the main office building as physically full as it once was, can, if they wish to, easily leverage technology to handle the one corporate commodity that exceeds the value of data itself, and that is trust.