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May 26, 2020

Building Trust as a Remote-first Company

Adam Cuppy



Advisor / Founding Partner
Medford, OR

Here at ZEAL, our company is remote-first: many team members work from home, and no one is required to come into one of our offices. I, myself, have worked from home for over a decade (somewhere between 15,000 and 21,000 hours).

Developing and maintaining trust between managers and employees when working remote is hard, and while I'll outline a few strategies on how to get there, I don't mean to imply it's easy.

As a remote-first consultancy, building trust from a distance is something we've thought a lot about; we believe it's part of our company culture and values.

Before I go into what's different about being remote vs. in-person, let's start with the most essential parts of building trust - at all.

It's a two-way street.

It is crucial to contemplate the question, "Does my team trust me as a manager, or as an employer?" When team members feel basic, embedded trust in the culture of their workplace, they feel valued and, in turn, value their work.

At ZEAL, this means creating space for honest communication, both digitally and in-person (through standups, retrospectives, and 1-on-1 meetings, for example). 

> The team needs to feel they can ask hard questions and trust that we will give them honest answers. 

At the beginning of any relationship, both parties are likely to be gauging how accepting the other person is to critical feedback: Will you fire/berate/de-value me? Be careful not to assume everyone is "just like me falsely" and willing to work it out on day one. Start by setting an example.

Quality over quantity

Even though investing time is part of our revenue model, ultimately, our work is the result of quality knowledge applied in a way that solves real problems. Less micromanaging means people don't feel like they need to appear busy, which would be, in fact, counter-productive to our work and concentration.

Life stuff happens

We need to pick our kids up from school; the cable gal comes to service the internet; you need to sign for a package downstairs. Working remotely from home affords a certain degree of flexibility in how each person manages his or her time. Believing that our team can organize their work while deciding when to attend to other responsibilities or unforeseen events is part of trusting them. Here you feel the "freedom to do your work, without guilt" when life things do come up. 

"How are you?" and "What can I do to support you?"

Sound basic? Well, it is, but sometimes we don't hear or ask it enough. We all know that if we are treated well—as people, not just workers who deliver a product—we feel valued and more motivated in our work. Fundamentally, we develop this kind of communication and relationship among team members.

Take a "human-first" approach. Not all life situations are emotionally exhausting. "I had a crappy night's sleep," and variations of "I'm feeling overwhelmed" come up. These are great opportunities for thoughtful conversation. Talking it out and being heard is enough to lift our spirits.

"I appreciate you" goes a long way.

Without recognition and appreciation built into the fabric of a workplace, it can often get forgotten. We try to remember—and practice—this at ZEAL. Simply vocalizing, "I appreciate you" goes a long way; the result is a culture of respect and support. It's likely something we could benefit from practicing in our personal lives as well. 


How do we build trust remotely?

Due to a lack of so much context (nonverbal cues, physical presence, and situational control), poorly set expectations wreak havoc in a remote environment. The medium is different. To be effective, we have to change our expectations around that medium - not lower our standards, adjust our expectations.

The body language of remote-work

We're creatures of habit - this is evolutionary. We believe that consistent patterns garner consistent results. In-person, I can interpret your body language as you being happy/sad/frustrated, but in a remote environment, it's significantly harder. 

If I'm accustomed to you replying within 5-minutes of every Slack message and you unexpectedly take an hour to get back to me, my brain starts to wonder, "What does this mean? Are you mad? Did I say something wrong?!" 

Does this mean I have to be consistent at all costs? Of course not. (Nor does it mean it's a good idea to set the precedence that a 5-minute turn around on Slack is a healthy expectation either, but that's for a different post.) Be mindful that you're setting expectations through your communication style, and breaking the pattern sends a message.

Be explicit with your team as to what to expect from you. 

I have to watch my young child on occasion, so I often mention in standups, "I'm watching my daughter this afternoon, so I'll get back to any messages when I get a break but don't expect anything immediately."‍ As a manager, be the model. Show your humanity. Speak up when you've got challenges. Be the example.

Clarify and verify

Assumptions make quick work of miscommunication and broken relationships; in a remote environment, often due to a lack of nonverbal cues, this dysfunction moves faster than usual.

During meetings, while reading emails/messages, I often keep a notebook next to me. When I find myself drawing subjective conclusions (aka. assumptions), I write them down as questions to ask. More often than not, I don't need to ask the question, because I can rule out the assumption when I say (think) it out loud; otherwise, I ask the question.

I'm amazed by how often my assumptions are wrong.  An added benefit is that through verifying my takeaway it bring more clarity to the situation. About as often as being wrong, the other person and I get even more specific, which is never a bad thing.

Look into the camera.

A quick story:

About ten years ago, I was working with an employee of a client. We wrote code (pair-programmed) remotely for close a year and a half. I finally made the journey out to their office, and when I met him in-person for the first time, we shook hands, and said, "Do you realize this is the first time we've ever looked at each other in the eyes?" It took me a moment; then I realized he was right!

For over a year, we had been working through Skype. Because the camera is not the screen, and the display, not the camera, there had been no single point in time where he and I were looking at each other in the eyes. Mind, blown.

I've come to believe that this single issue is a predominant reason why video chat is "just not the same." While there are a few things you can do to adjust for this (example: Look into the camera when someone is talking to you, so at least they will feel more connected), it's more fruitful to change your expectations. Now I didn't say "lower the bar."

Beware of pre-existing issues before going remote.

A magnifying glass puts focus on a toxic working relationship when you go remote. Less than 10% of human communication is in the words we use; the other 90%+ is in non-verbal cues (body language and tone of voice). Therefore, with less face time, messages can be misunderstood, and if communication is not direct and honest, misunderstandings can lead to personal conflict that interferes with a positive working relationship. 

It's crucial to develop healthy communication habits from the beginning, which means putting egos aside and genuinely listening to one another.

Start with an A+ grade.

Accountability and productivity are often a concern when going remote. "But, how do I know everyone is staying focused?... How do I know they're doing their job?" It's a valid question. In the beginning, you may need to rely on blind trust; believe in your people before you have enough proof. 

There's nothing that erodes trust faster than a feeling that you're not trusted. So, start from a place of hope. Start by trusting everyone's intentions to do good work. Instead of jumping and correcting the first missteps (or second or third or...), give the team space to rise to the occasion. 

They may - will - impress you.

(Photo credit: Joshua Hoehne)

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