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What Remote Employees Can Do to Build Trust with Their Managers

by Keith Fentress / February 22, 2018

The foundation of any work relationship is trust. It used to be that your manager would give you assignments and, if you performed well, you would earn greater trust. Over time, you would be given more responsibility. This responsibility often came with more autonomy – the ability to make your own decisions about your work with less oversight. Gaining more autonomy has long been a key employee motivator. With the rise of remote work, autonomy takes on a whole new meaning. Instead of something that is earned through building trust, it now must be given automatically to remote employees.

Giving remote employees immediate autonomy is a struggle for many managers. It’s not easy for managers to simply trust that employees will be able to work effectively out of sight with limited supervision. I imagine there has been many a manager, myself included, biting fingernails while waiting for work products to come in from remote employees with the hope that they nailed the assignment. It is for all those managers that I would like to say that I think it is still the employee’s responsibility to earn your trust and their autonomy as remote workers.

Employee Patterns to Watch For

Years ago, I hired an employee who was bright and capable and had great references. There was nothing in the interview process that would suggest he would be anything but a solid performer on the team. Because we work remotely, we assign new employees a mentor for the first year to help them learn how to set up their office, manage their time, and feel more connected when making the transition to working at home. His mentor’s early reports indicated that he was doing well and adapted easily to remote work.

The employee initially approached his work with enthusiasm. However, after several months, I noticed that he was contributing less on team calls and his deadlines started to slip. He always had a reasonable excuse for missing deadlines. Next, I started to notice that calls and emails would not be answered in a timely fashion.

My trust in him started to falter so I set up an in-person meeting to discuss the situation. He was very reasonable and, as always, had an explanation for what was going on and promised to get his work back on track.

Within a couple weeks, the negative patterns reemerged and the work that he turned in had lots of errors and seemed rushed. So, I set up a meeting with him to terminate employment. He knew it was coming so it was all very cordial, and we had a good exit discussion. It turns out that he had been working on a graduate degree and the freedom of working from home gave him the opportunity to work on his studies instead of his job. At the end of our discussion he said, “If I had a nickel for every time I said I wanted to leave the office and work from home, I would have enough money not to have to work at all.” This phrase spoke volumes to me. Sometimes, capable people can work very well in an office environment, but it is difficult for them to work from home.

In managing remote employees for over 30 years, I have seen this pattern many times. Working from home gives the employee immediate autonomy without daily supervision. With this autonomy, the employee has the freedom to pursue distractions, of which there are many at home - chores, neighbors, pets, errands, children, Internet, TV, Netflix, etc. These distractions can cause employees to focus less on work, so they miss deadlines. Building pressure to turn in assignments eventually causes them to rush through the work, and the sloppy result often requires their coworkers to perform quality control on their work. In turn, these patterns give rise to negative feelings, hinder communication and team performance, and ultimately undermine trust.

Based on my experience, I would say that one out of four people have difficulty working remotely. Some just need extra monitoring and support, while others need a more traditional office environment to feel connected to the job and to be accountable for their hours and work.

6 Ways Remote Employees Can Earn Trust

Given that employees who work remotely need immediate autonomy, it is important to focus on building trust between the employee and manager. Since the manager has to provide immediate trust to allow an employee to work from home, the employee should go the extra mile to build that trust, in my opinion. Here are some suggestions that can help:

In or Out - Let your manager and coworkers know when you are in or out of the office. This is a big step toward building trust. There are many applications that can let your team know whether you are at your desk and available for work. We use the features in Slack that indicate whether a coworker is active on his/her computer. Employees can also state their status – whether they do not wish to be disturbed, or are in a meeting, on travel or vacation, etc.

We also have a flextime policy in the company that enables employees to take off up to two hours without prior approval. To communicate flextime, all employees are requested to enter flextime on a shared company calendar and to indicate when they plan to make up that time. This way, everyone can know when people are in or out of the office. To me, knowing whether employees are available is a key indicator for building trust.

Be Responsive – When employees are in the office, being responsive is the next step in building trust. This includes being available for calls or videoconferences and responding quickly to email and messaging. Responsiveness lets people know that you are there and engaged. It is frustrating to leave a voicemail or send a message only to have a coworker take hours to respond.

Communicate Clearly – Communication skills are incredibly important in a remote work setting – perhaps even more important than when people are face to face. Be clear in how you communicate, whether on the phone, video, email, text, or instant message. Don’t make the person on the other end have to interpret your meaning from a garbled or poorly communicated message.

Communicate Openly - When it comes to work, communicate openly and honestly. Since no one is looking over your shoulder, it is important to let others know the status of your work. Too many times I have heard employees say, “It’s all under control” or “I’m making good progress,” only to find that the opposite is true. As a manager, I want to know when there are problems well in advance, and that requires employees to communicate openly. Also, as an employee, you can proactively communicate your work status. Don’t sit back and wait for your manager to ask questions – regularly reach out and let him/her know. A short message that says, “I’m halfway there,” or “I hit a snag - do you have time to talk?” communicates that you are conscientious and have work integrity. Don’t leave your manager and coworkers guessing – let them know the status of your work on a routine basis.

Request Feedback - When you turn in deliverables face to face, you can gauge the reaction of your manager and coworkers by their expression and body language. Since this can’t happen as easily in a remote setting, ask for feedback. How did that last assignment go? Did I meet your expectations? What could I have changed to improve my work? Asking questions encourages feedback, which, in turn, provides you with an opportunity for growth. Such feedback should also be sought from your coworkers. The goal is to make sure your work products do not sit in a communication vacuum – reach out to learn what you did well and to discover where you can improve.

Quality Work – Nothing builds trust like turning in high quality work because it says a lot about how you manage your time, your ability to apply your skills and knowledge, your understanding of company and customer needs, and your value as an employee. Because of this, it is important for remote workers to take the time to review their own efforts. When I complete an assignment, I typically take a short break and try to come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. If it is a spreadsheet, I try to go back through the logic one more time and double check my totals. If I’m writing, I read the draft out loud to make sure it flows. The point is to do everything you can to ensure your work is error free. In a remote setting, I have found that managers and coworkers will often correct the work of their team members rather than taking the time to provide constructive criticism or to review the work with them in more detail. This is why I encourage employees to double and triple check their efforts.

The Building Blocks of Trust Lead to Growth

Trust is built upon many small actions. It is key to an effective working relationship, especially for remote working. In a remote setting, managers must provide autonomy and trust instantly to allow employees to work from their homes. However, in my opinion, you as the employee must earn that trust by notifying your manager when you are in and out of the office, being responsive, clearly and openly communicating on project work, requesting feedback on submitted work, and providing a high level of work quality. These actions will help remote employees earn and build trust, which, in turn, will lead to growth and greater responsibility. As Albert Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”


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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, snorkeling, and fly fishing. He also enjoys martial arts and playing the saxophone.