How to Build Trust and Establish Transparency with a Remote Team

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Shannon Burton, Writer6 min read

Employers, managers, and executives have always preached about building trust and transparency in the workplace.

But let’s face it: the need to “see people in chairs” has never come from a place of trust. Now that many of us have moved to remote work environments, the same goes for watching team members’ “green dots” or activity status.

While leaders anxiously attempt to ensure their teams are at work, workers anxiously attempt to appear busy… even when they already are. It’s costing everyone time, energy and productivity. This disconnect between managers and workers has a name: productivity paranoia.

The secret to successful teams has always involved hiring the talent you trust to get the work done.

And this still applies. Yet many remote teams struggle to leverage trust and team transparency.

Let’s talk about it.

Most leaders misuse team transparency features

There’s an obvious problem with green-dot-watching: just because someone's active on Teams or Slack it doesn’t mean they’re doing productive work.

Other problems lurk beneath the surface, too. Heavy focus on team members’ activities leads to a host of issues, including the following.

Over-communication

When managers reach out to check in, ask for status updates or otherwise ascertain what workers are doing, it creates workplace distraction. According to Asana, the top three culprits for workplace distraction are:

  • email
  • meetings, and
  • interruptions.

Combined, these distractions cost U.S. businesses $37 billion a year. Constant communication interrupts people’s ability to engage in deep work .

Employee anxiety

When employees know they’re being watched, their attention switches to staying visibly active rather than being productive.

“Employees can’t focus on their actual work if they are constantly worried about their green light,” Jenn Fulner at Recruiting Daily explained . The green dots are “at best a superficial measure of productivity, and at worst, a major distraction.”

One study also found 41% of remote workers feel they’re working too hard or too many hours to avoid appearing as if they’re slacking off. This anxiety often leads to burnout and poor mental health.

Assumptions about productivity

Some companies use employee monitoring software to oversee people and measure productivity. In fact, employee surveillance software demand rose 58% from 2019 to 2022.

However, monitoring software can feel invasive—especially when used without employee knowledge. It also presumes the overseer has a complete understanding of which activities are productive and which aren’t.

The leading monitoring software options on the market ask leaders to designate “productive” and “unproductive” apps and sites. Leaders may make these designations without realizing that team members sometimes use “unproductive” sites like social media platforms to source leads or troubleshoot issues with others in their industry. There’s also something to be said for taking some quiet time to meander, think creatively and problem-solve.

Productive remote work environments require trust and transparency

Of course, there’s a reason why employee monitoring software exists. With 89% of employees admitting to wasting time at work, leaders simply want to be sure tasks are indeed getting done—especially with the prevalence of the remote work model.

How do we prioritize trust and team transparency while also ensuring productivity?

Measure work output, not input

Productive work isn’t black and white. A team member can spend eight hours a day on your company’s apps but still produce little work. Work output is far more important than work input.

For example, Luxembourg employees are more than twice as productive per hour as Americans, despite working 340 fewer hours a year. In this case, productivity was measured as GDP per capita.

Clockify defined productivity output as “the number of items/goods produced or services provided, based on the amount of input.” Admittedly, this proves tricky when it comes to knowledge workers.

“As we’ve shifted to a knowledge economy, it’s much squishier to measure what output actually looks like,” organizational professor Scott Sonenshien conceded . Without physical products to measure, managers fall into the trap of thinking activity = productivity.

How do we solve productivity problems? Try asking:

  • What is the team member’s task?
  • How can we measure task completion?
  • Which key performance indicators (KPIs) represent those measures?

Once you’ve done that, use the KPIs to track employee output.

Develop transparent digital infrastructure

In addition to reworking how you measure productivity, you’ll want to leverage team transparency to empower your teams to collaborate in ways that work for them.

“Implementing best practices that revolve around transparency, trust and asynchronous communication are the building blocks for creating [a sustainable] remote work environment,” Doist head of remote Chase Warrington insisted . “These should be baked into the foundation of any distributed organization.”

In this case, team transparency could look like using digital work analytics software that doesn’t just provide visibility to leadership. Rather, teams should be able to discuss among themselves which app and site-usage insights would be most helpful for their team. Then, they can consent to share that information to make working together easier.

For example, when we used Produce8 to audit our Slack usage , we discovered we were all mostly online from 9am to 12pm PST. We decided to keep synchronous work (such as meetings and real-time messaging) in that timeframe moving forward and empower asynchronous work throughout the rest of the day. Additionally, seeing how we were using—or more accurately, overusing—Slack gave us opportunities to make setting and usage changes to reduce distractions and optimize our internal communications.

Build remote teams you trust

“The important part of any anti-distraction strategy is to avoid micromanaging employees and making them feel distrusted or watched,” wrote Kiely Kuligowski at Business News Daily. “You want to provide opportunities for employees to do what works best for them in terms of focus and productivity.”

It should go without saying you need to trust your teams to do the jobs you hire them for. People at high-trust companies report 50% higher productivity compared to low-trust ones, after all.

By building teams you trust to do their jobs, and then giving them the space and time to do good work, you lay the groundwork for success.

Struggling to build trust? Try identifying communication channels that would exist in the office (like the water cooler or break room) and recreating them digitally. Alternately, look into virtual team-building opportunities to foster connection.

Retain trustworthy people with team transparency

Trust and transparency tend to feed off one another with amazing results for both employees and their companies.

“When an organization is more transparent with their employees, they tend to be more successful in several areas,” said Glassdoor. “They have increased employee engagement, stronger company culture, and transparency fosters a type of comfort that allows employees to freely communicate.”

Not only is transparency linked to increased employee morale, but it also boosts retention rates. With the cost of losing an employee ranging anywhere from 50-250% of their salary, there’s a real bottom-line advantage to keeping employees around and happy.

Retaining team members also means less disruption overall, fueling productivity and success.

Optimize your remote work environment with transparent practices

Looking to the future, remote work promises to be a major feature of successful companies.

Getting it right will require adapting from old practices like clock-watching and seat-filling. These practices were honestly already outdated years ago for many industries.

If your remote work environment is siloed and disconnected, there are ways to fix that. Focus first on the things you already trust your team to do. With those things in mind, brainstorm ways you can give them more team transparency and freedom to do those things easily.

As you build trust with your teams, you’ll find it simpler to expand it into other areas. Remember, trust and transparency feed off of each other. The more you give, the more you’ll get in return.

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