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:




Trust Matters, The Podcast: Kick-Starting a Relationship with a New Boss (Episode 20)

Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast RSS

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Trusting a Team Member on a High-Profile Project (Episode 19)

Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast RSS

Attract! Attract! Why Attract is the New Retain

The mantra of “attract and retain” has been around the HR community – and its general management constituency – even longer than the unfortunate rush to refer to people as “talent.”

It used to make sense. But it doesn’t anymore and the implications are significant.

Why Retention?

It’s been awhile since anyone dusted off the basic retention rationale, so let’s review the bidding. Here are some commonly stated reasons why companies should pursue employee retention:

  1. It costs more to hire than to retain people
  2. The more experienced the hire, the more it costs to retrain replacements
  3. Experienced employees know the ropes, the lingo, how things are done
  4. Experienced employees form deeper relationships with customers
  5. Retained employees are motivated, which helps customer relationships.

Of course, a few of these tenets were always subject to qualification – number 5, for example. Longevity can just as easily drive complacency and myopia as well as it can drive motivation.

But that’s not the Big Story. The Big Story lies in the assumptions underlying all five of those beliefs. Those assumptions are:

  1. the benefits of retention increase in direct proportion to longevity, and
  2. the pace at which new employees become productive is relatively fixed.

Both beliefs are looking a lot less true these days.

What’s Changed?

Two things have changed: work and people.

Work. Work has become outsourced, modular, plug-compatible, horizontal, contracted, bite-sized, for-hire, project-based. Employers shun fixed costs and value flexibility.

This is partly because they can: technology has made work-sourcing a global phenomenon, freed from space and time. It’s also partly because they have to: global sourcing means competitiveness is also global. The global economy has undergone a massive make/buy analysis and has come down heavily on the “buy” choice. If you’re not working with the world’s best/lowest cost doer of some key task, then you’re at a disadvantage.

The nature of work has shifted from a “job” focus to a “project” or “task” focus. Employers no longer need “someone who can do…” but rather “someone who has done, and will do…”  The new work model is not semi-permanent vertical employer silos of people; it is the model used by the film industry and by consultants, a constantly shifting nexus of tasks and resources.

Recruitment comes to resemble an ongoing speed-dating event.

People. I think we’re finally past decrying the lack of employee “loyalty;” it’s so last millennium.  People are “loyal” to their professions, their technologies, maybe their customers – but not to the constantly morphing corporate entities that sign their paychecks.

The skills of the new generation have evolved to fit the new workplace. The Facebook generation, adept at mass-scale peer relationships, doesn’t relate well to authority, no matter which side of the relationship they’re on. Geography? Twitter is everywhere and while not every 20-something can afford time in Europe, they all know someone who can and does, and can all Skype it and tweet it 24-7 in the meantime.

The oldsters may not like the verbal promiscuity of “friending,” but it fits perfectly with the new workplace. While society may pay a price in the dearth of deep, vertical relationships, the market place is demanding breadth.

Attraction and Retention Redux

Let’s put these trends together. What the economy needs, and what people are organizing to offer, is the ability to form relationships at the speed of transactions.

To companies, the attractive employees are not those with deep potential; they are those who can hit the ground running in a plug-compatible world, instantly connecting with thousands of like-minded peers within the company and without.

To people, the attractive employers are not those who offer long-term “commitments” (usually just relationship-disguised transactional offers anyway) but those who offer the ability to be instantly productive, while offering personal growth opportunities in the form of autonomy and new activities.

There is an obvious match here. What is no longer obvious is the relevance of “retention.”

Why would an employer want to retain people when the changing market requires ever-changing skills that can be bought quickly with precision rather than trained over time with generality?

Why would an employee want to be retained, when (s)he can find ever-changing opportunities to gain experience in a world thousands of times bigger than one employer alone could ever hope to offer?

Attract! Attract! Three New Strategies for Companies

The above are massive trends. The trend is your friend. The challenge is to ride the trend, not fight it. Here are three strategies for doing so:

1. Aim for zero cost onboarding and training. Zero works well as a stretch goal, but it’s not enough. How can you get people to pay you to join your company? (This is not as crazy as it sounds: how much do people pay to go to Harvard? So, become the “Harvard of YourNiche.”)

2. Reverse-hire search firms. Tell Russell Reynolds you want every employee to get one bonafide offer from an outside firm every year to keep them motivated. If they stay with you, they have re-upped, and become re-attracted. If they leave, you can choose either to recalibrate your attractions program, or wish the employee well and let them tell the market how employee-dedicated you are. (This is not as crazy as it sounds; Tony Hsieh already does a version of this at Zappos, paying people not to take a job offer).

3. Up your knowledge management game. Tenure is such an expensive way to gain company knowledge. Figure out how to make it available to every employee, from day one.

And don’t assume that means AI and databases. Try the same thing that works in the outside world: massive horizontal networking. Invent intra-LinkedIn and Intra-Tweet. (This is not as crazy as it sounds; Clay Hebert is working on SpinDows)

Attract and retain? That sounds like a motto for a roach motel. The new mantra is Attract! Attract!


Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ [email protected].

The Death of Employee Trust: Myth? Or Fable?

Trust is a many-meaning thing. One of its multiple mysteries is the assumed object. As in, “I trust my 16-year old.” Well, to do what? Trusting him to set the table correctly is one thing; to make curfew may be quite another. The identity of the implied object makes all the difference.

A more relevant example is the Edelman Tweet Level test; it rates your twitter handle on several dimensions, including trust. On the Top Twitter Users by Trust ranking, the New York Times is #14. CNN is #4. Tops on the list is–of course–Justin Bieber. (Numbers 2 and 3 are a couple of Kardashians).

Trust to do what? Report the news?  Or–well, I’m not sure what Bieber/Kardashian are trusted for, but I doubt it’s for the same thing as the Times.  Again, the implied object makes all the difference. (Full disclosure: I confess, I’m hooked on TweetLevel myself).

Which brings us to an interesting blogpost, Employee Trust in Its Death Throes, by Derek Irvine in the Human Capital League.  

Employee trust in and loyalty for the employer has been dying a slow, agonizing death for the last several decades. It began with massive layoffs in the 1970s-80s when employees who thought they had a job for life, like their parents before them, found themselves pounding the pavement looking for work…

…The result? No one expects their employer to look out for the employee’s best interests.

…Octavius Black, chief executive of the Mind Gym, a performance consultancy, warns that while staff retention has held up during the downturn, that could soon change. “Over 60 per cent of employees currently say they plan to switch companies, with 25 per cent actively looking for a new job,” he says. “The risk is even more acute with top performers, whose feeling of engagement with their employer has dropped three times faster than the average employee’s in the past 12 months.”

Well, yes. And no. Employees should trust their employers—to do what? Employers should trust their employers—to do what?   It depends on the implied object of trust. 

Unless we update the implied objects, we’re about half a century out of date in our assumptions.  And you can’t get good answers out of questions that no longer make sense.

What Trust Means Between Employers and Employees

The old, 1950s belief-set of employer-employee trust had to do with a pact around employment. If the workers worked hard and well, the company would/should take care of them. As usually interpreted, “take care” meant, if not lifetime employment, then something approaching it. As the article notes, that myth was taken out and shot several times in the past few decades.

But, like a zombie myth, it lives on. It lives on in articles that still conflate low turnover with a trust-based employment relationship. It’s time to get clear:

The length of the W-2 form relationship no longer has anything to do with employment trust!  

There, I said it. Let’s see why that’s true.

It’s true because no company in the world these days has enough direct control over its markets, customers, suppliers, etc. to guarantee employment. No one—not employees, customers, suppliers, nor stockholders—should assume in a globally-scaled world that any one institution can maintain its current form over the decades required to guarantee any one’s employment. 

It would be arrogant of an employer to claim otherwise, and foolish of an employee to believe it if they did. Yet somehow we look at arrogance and stupidity and see—a decline in trust!?  The fault lies in the perceiver, not in the relationship.    

Let me suggest a different meaning of employment trust, one that is also cited in Irvine’s article: trust as looking out for the other’s best interests.

Trust as Looking Out for the Others’ Best Interests

What would happen if a company really, truly took this approach? In a rapidly evolving world, a company dedicated to its employees’ best interests would be attuned to the times when employees’ interests could be better served by working elsewhere. 

Think about that. What if a company hired an executive search firm not to add more people, but to find offers to entice away the existing employees. Because if they then stayed, they would have re-upped and re-motivated; and if they left, it would be for the sake of their personal improvement. Which a good employer would be dedicated to serving, yes?

This is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. For decades now we have recited “attract and retain” as a mantra. It’s half wrong, and the wrong part is the retention part. We have come to think of talent using the roach motel model: you can check them in, but don’t let them check out.

Yes, there are economies of knowledge, which argue for employee retention. But there is also burnout, bureaucratization, golden handcuffs, Peter Principles, going native, drinking the Kool Aid, and diminishing returns. Companies truly focused on their employees’ best interests would not automatically try to retain everybody—they would aggressively seek personal development opportunities for all, regardless of what that meant.  It would sure make attraction a slam dunk!

The molecular unit of business in this approaching world is no longer the company. It is the person. Companies who truly care about their people are willing to morph to serve those people. Companies who insist on bending people to maintain the continued existence of a corporate entity are zombies who have lived out their natural lives–and we all know you can’t trust zombies.

I realize I’ve tried to put 40 pounds of content into a 20-pound blog here, so let me tighten it up in closing:

The idea that employment trust is defined by a continuing employer-employee relationship is not only out of date, it is keeping us from recognizing the true object of trust in an evolving world. 

You can’t talk about trust without defining the object. And when it comes to employment, that object is changing.