Trust and Return to Office | Part I Reframing the Debate

Businessman return to work concept. Reopen economy after Coronavirus lockdown. Woman runs to work in office after removal of restrictions on Covid 19

As we navigate the uncertain waters of returning to the office in a post-pandemic world, one crucial element stands out as the cornerstone of a successful transition: trust. Trust is not only the foundation of healthy workplace relationships but also the linchpin that holds together the entire ecosystem of the modern office. In this blog series, we explore the pivotal role of trust in facilitating a smooth return to the office.

The return to office marks a pivotal moment for both employers and employees. After a prolonged period of remote work during the pandemic, employers have begun asking – or demanding – that employees return to the office. Employers have valid reasons for wanting workers back in the office and, while many employees are eager to return to the sense of normalcy they had pre-pandemic, others prefer the autonomy and flexibility to which they have become accustomed while working from home. As a result, the return-to-office conversation has become polarized, highlighting concerns about productivity and the balance between in-person and remote work arrangements.

In the first of this three-part blog series, I attempt reframe the current return to office debate, looking at employee perspectives on remote and in-office work, the employer motivation behind calling employees back to the office, and the societal impacts of returning to the workplace. The next two blogs in the series will address what employers and employees, respectively, can do to smooth the transition.

The Employee Perspective

The reluctance of some employees to return to the office can be attributed to various factors, ranging from control over work hours and location to a desire for greater autonomy. Here are some common reasons why employees may not want to return to the office:

  1. Productivity: Working from home helps workers efficiently drive personal performance and stay focused on completing individual tasks.
  2. Commute and work-life balance: Commuting to the office can be time-consuming and stressful. Remote work has allowed employees to reclaim some of the time they previously spent commuting, and they may be reluctant to give that up.
  3. Flexibility: Many employees have come to appreciate the flexibility that remote work provides. They have had the opportunity to tailor their work environment to their preferences, which can be challenging to replicate in an office setting.
  4. Childcare and family responsibilities: Remote work offers flexibility in managing childcare and family responsibilities, and a return to the office can pose significant economic and logistical challenges for family care.
  5. Psychological well-being: Remote work has provided many employees with a sense of control and reduced workplace stress. A return to the office may reintroduce stressors associated with the physical office environment, such as a noisy or distracting workspace.

At the same time, many workers look forward to the return to office to regain a sense of normalcy. A recent Gallup poll, identifies ongoing challenges related to remote work:

  1. Networking, relationship building, and professional development: In-person work settings facilitate organic networking and relationship building and present opportunities for professional growth and mentorship. Being in proximity to colleagues and superiors fosters learning and contributes to career advancement.
  2. Feeling less connected to the organization’s culture: Employees may miss the sense of belonging and connection to the company’s culture that the office environment fosters. The office often embodies the company’s values and mission, making it an important place for cultural immersion.
  3. Access to resources: while many workers have invested heavily in home offices, the workplace can provide resources that employees may not have at home, such as specialized tools, software, and a more reliable and faster internet connection.
  4. Disrupted work processes: For many, going to the office can provide a structured and professional work environment, which improves time management and can lead to increased motivation and a sense of purpose.

The Employer Perspective

While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote and flexible work arrangements, there are still several compelling reasons why employers are keen to have their employees back in the physical workplace:

  1. Customer service: The American Customer Satisfaction Index dropped 4 points between 2019 and 2022, falling to its lowest level in almost 20 years. While it is rebounding, lower customer satisfaction is related to how quickly and easily customers can reach providers for problem resolution, and the quality of customer service varies with remote work.
  2. Collaboration and innovation: Physical proximity can enhance spontaneous interactions and facilitate more effective collaboration among employees. Being in the same location allows for in-person meetings, brainstorming sessions, and face-to-face communication, which can lead to increased creativity and innovation.
  3. Supervision and management: In-office work allows for more direct supervision and management of employees. Employers can observe and provide guidance to ensure that work is being carried out efficiently and in accordance with company standards.
  4. Organizational culture and values: The physical office environment can help reinforce company culture and values. It provides a space for employees to immerse themselves in the company’s ethos and connect with its mission and values.
  5. Networking and relationship building: In-person interactions can facilitate networking and relationship-building opportunities, both within the organization and with external partners or clients. These connections can lead to new business opportunities and partnerships.
  6. Branding and image: A well-designed office space can enhance a company’s brand and image. It can leave a positive impression on clients, partners, and potential employees.

The Societal Perspective

The return to the office also has several societal benefits that extend beyond the individual organization. These advantages can positively impact communities, economies, and society as a whole. Here are some potential societal benefits of employees returning to the office:

  1. Economic stimulus and urban revitalization: When employees return to the office, they may contribute to increased economic activity in the surrounding communities. Office workers patronizing local businesses and public transportation services boost both private and public revenue. Commercial real estate benefits from the return to the office, as organizations invest in office space, renovations, and expansions.
  2. Volunteering and community engagement: The return to the office can encourage employees to participate in local volunteer and community engagement activities, furthering social responsibility and giving back to society.
  3. Public safety: Greater office presence in urban areas can enhance public safety, as more people are present to observe and report any safety concerns. This can contribute to the well-being of the community.

It’s important to note that the societal benefits of returning to the office may depend on the size and density of urban areas, the local economy, and various other factors.

Finding Common Ground

The pros and cons for returning to the office may at first may at first blush appear to be divisive. Looking more closely, however, there is a lot of common ground between what employers and employees want. Topping the list are increased productivity and collaboration, which fuel innovation and customer satisfaction. Employee engagement and connection to corporate culture are high on both audiences’ lists. Availability and utilization of corporate resources also shows up in both perspectives.

With so much common ground, how is it that the debate continues to be so polarized?

Reframing the Debate

The challenge with the return to office debate today isn’t a lack of common ground. Instead, it’s a lack of common understanding. Each side appears to be fully vested in their own perspective, to the extent that they appear to have missed how much they have in common with the other side. The debate has devolved from a conversation on how to achieve common goals to a series of demands for each side to get it’s own way, with employers threatening to fire workers who refuse to return to the office, and employees threatening to quit if they are forced to return.

Rather than debating which side is right, we should be asking what’s important in each perspective, and how can we leverage the common ground to find solutions that work for both employers and employees. Both sides need to exercise empathy, reflecting on what’s driving their desire to return to the office (or not) and understanding what’s important to the other side, and why.

As we embark on the journey back to the office, trust emerges as the linchpin that can make or break this transition. A culture built on trust fosters collaboration, innovation, and overall well-being. By prioritizing trust, organizations can not only successfully navigate the return to the office but also thrive in the ever-evolving landscape of work. Trust is not just a means to an end but an essential part of the destination itself—a more resilient, adaptable, and connected workplace.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at how employers can boost trust to smooth the transition during return to office.

I used AI to support researching and writing this blog series.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

Want to Retain Top Talent? Look to Your Corporate Culture

Magnet attracting chess pieces symbolizing attracting and retaining talentOne of the myriad things we learned from “The Great Resignation,” where employees across the nation voluntarily resigned from their jobs, is that people are no longer willing to stay in unfulfilling roles or work for employers that do not respect their values. A powerful component of the mass exodus from organizations of all sizes and industries is the effect corporate culture has on the workplace environment, productivity, and relationships.

Employers quickly realized what they already knew – the same thing we all know yet tend to forget until it is too late – that a positive workplace culture supports the well-being and success of employees and makes them feel valued and connected to their colleagues, making them more likely to stay and contribute their best work.

Corporate culture stems from the shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral norms that influence everything from a company’s mission and vision to employee satisfaction, work-life balance, and a positive work environment.

When we forget this, the result is clear: a negative workplace culture leaves employees feeling demotivated and disengaged, ultimately leading to high turnover, which has a resonating impact on the company’s reputation, brand, and long-term growth.

Here, we discuss why trust is a foundational element that profoundly impacts corporate culture and how it plays a pivotal role in shaping an organization’s dynamics, behaviors, competitiveness, and overall strength and success.

Strong and Effective Leadership Sets the Tone for Corporate Culture

Influential leaders who lead by example and prioritize the well-being of their teams create an environment that employees want to be a part of. This fosters job satisfaction among employees and loyalty to the leaders by whom they are inspired and motivated.

When people feel valued, appreciated, and supported in their workplace, they are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and less inclined to seek opportunities elsewhere, contributing to higher retention rates.

Trust Matters: Trust is critical in leadership that influences, inspires and promotes a culture where employees are more likely to follow the company’s vision and values. Leaders who build a culture of trust are those who consistently role-model trustworthy behavior and uncompromisingly promote principles that enable employees to be both trustworthy and trusting. This enhances reputation and brand image, which in turn helps retain employees and attract top talent who take pride in being associated with a respected and ethical organization.

Open Communication Leads to Employee Engagement and a Sense of Belonging

Effective communication is a cornerstone of a healthy corporate culture. Employees are more likely to stay in an organization where their opinions matter and they feel informed, that their voices are heard, and that their concerns are addressed.

A strong corporate culture creates a sense of belonging and community among employees who feel part of something bigger, developing connections with their colleagues and the organization crucial for retention. Open communication helps workers feel engaged and emotionally committed to their work and the organization, taking the initiative to go the extra mile, take ownership of their roles, and remain loyal to the company.

Trust Matters: Open and honest communication within an organization fosters trust. When employees trust their leaders and colleagues, they are more likely to share ideas, concerns, and feedback without fear of negative repercussions.

Open communication goes both ways: leaders need to be transparent about what’s happening in the company and what they expect from employees, and actively solicit and listen to employee feedback. In return, employees need to share their input candidly and proactively.

A Positive Corporate Culture Promotes Work-Life Balance

Many organizations recognize that flexibility and work-life balance initiatives show respect for employees’ well-being and contribute to a positive corporate culture, but the reverse is also true: corporate culture contributes to work-life balance.  Employees who consistently feel forced to choose between work responsibilities and taking care of their families and personal needs usually end up feeling unsatisfied with both.

Trust Matters: Employees who feel they can focus fully on their professional responsibilities while at work, and fully on their private lives in their private time, are likelier to stay with their employer. Knowing that their organization cares about their well-being can lower stress when they’re away from work, whether they’re enjoying regular time off or dealing with family emergencies.

Effective Teamwork and Collaboration Encourage Innovation

Corporate cultures that intentionally build trust and promote collaboration provide opportunities for continuous improvement, creativity, and calculated risk-taking, creating a competitive advantage.

Trust Matters: Without trust, innovation initiatives will struggle as teams do not feel comfortable taking the necessary risks to drive change. This is especially crucial in situations with high uncertainty and vulnerability.

Intentionally-built trust makes it possible for teams to take action to achieve success while ideas are blossoming and in times of crisis where they can falter without embarrassment in front of their leader or colleagues. When employees believe their team will provide a safe environment for individual and combined risk-taking, they deliver results.

In a culture of trust, team members are motivated, collaborate more smoothly, leverage their strengths more effectively, and constructively resolve conflicts and disputes to reach mutually beneficial solutions, radically expanding confidence in each other, leadership, and the organization.

Investing in People Facilitates Adaptability and Growth

Companies that prioritize a healthy corporate culture invest in employee development. Employees who see opportunities for advancement and skill-building within the organization are more likely to stay and grow with the company than to seek external opportunities. They are also more likely to pivot, grow and embrace organizational change.

Trust Matters: Employees are more likely to embrace new strategies and directions when they trust that leadership is invested in their personal success.

Businesses Thrive When They Put People First

A culture that encourages long-term thinking and values employee retention as a strategic goal is more likely to build a sustainable and prosperous organization. Businesses who put their people first:

  • Retain experienced employees who contribute to institutional knowledge and continuous improvement;
  • Attract top, value-aligned talent who are engaged, innovative, productive, collaborative, and curious employees;
  • Are less likely to be seen as a “stepping stone” for employees toward their long-term goals;
  • Develop employees who are passionate about the organization, its purpose, and their role in its success;
  • Have lower turnover costs, including recruitment, training, and lost productivity during the transition;
  • See internal trust reflected in healthier client, vendor and partner relationships, increasing trust and loyalty from key external stakeholders.

Trust is a fundamental element underpinning a corporate culture’s character and dynamics. Organizations that prioritize building and maintaining trust among employees tend to have healthier, more positive, and more productive cultures, contributing to long-term success and sustainability and increasing trust with clients and partners.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:




Three Things You Need to Know About Trust: Part 3

There are really only three things you need to know about trust. You can pretty much deduce the rest. The three parts are:

  1. Trust is a Two-player Game
  2. Trust Requires Risk
  3. Trust is Reciprocal

Part 3: Trust is Reciprocal–and What You Can Deduce From It All

Trust is created when one party takes a risk, and the other reciprocates positively. Think of a handshake offered, and returned.

Trust is AC, Not DC

We saw in Part 1 that one player does the trusting, and the other is trusted; the one doing the trusting is the one taking the risk.  That’s true – but only for the instant of that trust transaction. Trust is rarely built on one exchange alone, and the roles cannot stay fixed.

If you focus on being trustworthy, and your client trusts you, good for you. You can play that game for a while, but eventually your client will notice, ‘Wait, I’m taking all the risks here – what’s up with that?’ And at that point, they will stop trusting you.

You cannot escape the need to trust, as well as to be trustworthy. You have to take a risk too. Virtue may be its own reward, but unless you season virtue with risk-taking, you won’t get trust out of the recipe. To use an electrical metaphor, trust is not like direct current, moving in one direction – it’s alternating current, constantly changing direction.

Trust: Deducing Everything Else

In this brief series, I’ve claimed that “all you need to know” about trust is these three propositions – trust takes two players, it requires risk, and it must be reciprocating – and that you can deduce the rest. Let’s test that claim.

Organizational trust.  You may have noticed all my points have been about personal trust. What about organizational trust – trust in corporations, congress, the professions?

House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” In the same sense, all trust is personal. Trusting is something we do with our hearts and brains, one by one, personally; and trustworthiness is an attribute we ascribe almost entirely to individuals. (An exception is reliability: it makes linguistic sense to say that “GE is reliable,” or not. It is nonsense to say “GE is emotionally intelligent.”)

You can design corporate cultures to either encourage or discourage trusting and/or trustworthiness. And that’s pretty much it. Corporations may legally be people, but in the court of human nature and trust, they are largely environments which condition trust – they are not agents of trust themselves, only people are.

Trust, Virtues, Values, and Risk. The tools of individual trustworthiness can be found in the Trust Equation. The tools of individual trusting are about socially acceptable risk-taking. The tools of organizational trustworthiness and trusting – because organizations are environments for trust enhancement – can be found in the celebration of virtues and values.

Virtues are the personal attributes of trustworthiness – encouraged socially.  Values, or principles, are a set of guiding beliefs that govern interactions with others. Since trust is about relationship (remember Part 1), values drive the environment that creates or hinders trust. Among the most powerful trust-enhancing values are collaboration, transparency, and a long-term perspective. Organizations run along those lines create trust wherever they touch.

Trust Recovery. The business world frequently confuses “trust” with reputation, image, or poll ratings. This leads companies with trust problems to seek PR firms to focus on improving their reputation.

  • When your real trust levels exceed your reputation, you have a communications problem.
  • When your reputation exceeds your real trust levels, you have something a lot more serious, and throwing communications-only solutions at it is like throwing water on a grease fire.

Trust broken can be recovered, by the three basic principles above. It requires engagement by both parties, it requires risk-taking (particularly on the part of the offender), and it must be reciprocal. The biggest threats to trust recovery are an inadequate acknowledgement of the degree of rupture, and a refusal to accept the values required to change the state of trust.

Restoring Trust. The social issues facing us from lack of trust are real, and important. They can be addressed using the three principles above.

First, our trust crisis is not due to a global increase in the birthrate of morally impaired people. As noted in Part 1, trust is two-party game. It is about relationship. Trust failures are failures of relationship. Where we have lost trust, we have lost the ability to interact in relationship with others.

There are many reasons for this, including business thought leadership, an over-reliance on market solutions, and increased wealth disparity. All of them have emphasized the individual over the group.

The way to restoring social trust does not lie in better gun laws, tweaked incentives, stepped-up financial sector enforcement, or religion in the schools. It lies in Gandhi’s dictum to ‘be the change that you want to see in the world.’

It lies in the three trust facts: trust is a 2-player game of reciprocal risk-taking.  That means:

  • Trust is a personal job, not just one for leaders
  • Leaders must lead personally – by example, not by exhortation
  • Design environments that encourage people to trust and be trusted
  • Trust is about relationship – the Golden and Platinum rules apply
  • Trust is about relationship – anti-trust behavior is immature and socially poisonous
  • No pain no gain – there is no trust without risk
  • Trust is AC, not DC – you can’t always just be trusted, sometimes you have to trust
  • Trust is reciprocal – to make someone trustworthy, trust them
  • Blame and an inability to confront are the death of relationships and of trust
  • Run your life like you’d be proud to have it on the front page of the paper

If a trust issue sounds complicated, you’re over-thinking it. Go back to basics. There are only three things you need to know about trust, the rest you can deduce.