WFH and the ingredients of trust

Financial services are built on trust. Trust is a crucial ingredient in the relationship between a firm and its customers or clients; and there must also be trust among colleagues within the firm, and between the firm and its employees – reflected in the culture of the organisation.

Digitisation and WFH are changing the features of the working environment, and, with it, the nature of trust. We might call this a shift to Trust 2.0.

Video conferencing and in-person interaction

One of the stand-out features of the COVID-19 lockdown has been video conferencing. Many people have embraced video conferencing platforms enthusiastically, to stay connected with colleagues, clients and other stakeholders, in an attempt to operate business as usual. In their selection of the top three tools provided by employers to FS employees during lockdown, many respondents to our survey indicated that they use online chat tools (66 per cent) and collaboration tools such as file-sharing (56 per cent). Digital tools are also being used by clients: for example, in investment management, clients have conducted due diligence meetings on managers by video conferencing, a process that would typically involve several in-person meetings.

Although video conferencing and online chats have obvious benefits in a WFH environment, many individuals think that in-person meetings are more effective. Among responses to our survey, comments included: “meetings and workshops are often more productive face-to-face” and “collaboration tools [are] not as effective as in-person design meetings.” Another respondent attributed loss of productivity when working from home to “less easy input from colleagues”.

The results from our survey provide evidence of the value that employees see in office working and the in-person interaction that comes with it.

Figure 1. Most valued aspects of working in the office  

The top three answers all relate to the value of face-to-face communications. This is likely to be partly because it more productive and effective in stimulating ideas. But another reason is that in-person communication can build and reinforce a sense of trust between colleagues, and between employees and clients.

In-person interaction and trust

We take the view that for many FS employees, the value of office working, and the ability to meet with other people, relates primarily to building trusted relationships. Few people would dispute the view that it is more difficult to build trust when there is no in-person interaction. Body language, rather than spoken words, is arguably the most powerful way in which individuals communicate on issues where they want the other person to trust what they are saying. Even with video conferencing, where individuals can see each other, body language is much more difficult to communicate and read than when people are talking to each other in the same room. So when people are working from home, and communicate at a distance, building trust may take more time and be more difficult.

Not all employees enjoy meeting in-person with others, and this may well be an issue for employers to consider when making choices about the working environment post-lockdown. It is possible that extensive WFH may damage trust and the sense of common identity between colleagues, especially among those who prefer to stay away from the office. In answer to the survey question: ‘Which aspects of working in your employer’s offices … do you most value?’ one respondent commented: “Working from home” and another: “I don’t like working in the office. It is bad for my anxiety levels and general well-being.”

Our survey also found that only 53 per cent of FS employees working in small firms (˂1,000 Full Time Employees or FTE) rated the ability to meet with other people in person, compared with 67 per cent of employees in large companies (˃10,000 FTE). This may be due in part to the fact that in smaller companies there are fewer personal business relationships to deal with.

Employees and employer: organisation culture

Many FS firms have built a powerful reputation built largely on brand name and culture. Culture is readily understood as a general concept, but not so much when it gets down to the detail. Extensive use of WFH may also create problems for managers in building and maintaining a team culture. In spite of video conferencing, it may be difficult to bond as a team when its members work remotely.

Employers need to protect the trust between themselves and their employees when establishing working practices post-lockdown. To what extent should employees be trusted to work at home for the right number of hours and on the right activities, or can they be trusted to comply with rules in the office for social distancing or wearing face masks, for example? To what extent will monitoring be needed? Excessive monitoring might destroy trust, if it is seen as an invasion of privacy.

Trust in the ‘new normal’ environment

For financial services firms the relevance of trust in the ‘new normal’ after the lockdown ends can be summarised as follows:

  • Individuals will need to work harder to build trust in relationships via online channels while working at home. This may take time, longer than in the office.
  • Employers need to leverage their physical footprint, and use their office space to engender trust among employees and other their stakeholders, e.g. for recruitment or sales

Leadership

79 per cent agreed that their employer’s leadership met expectations in providing clarity on the impact of COVID-19 on the business.

Figure 2. Agreement that employer's leadership met expectations in providing clarity on the impact of COVID-19 for company

As FS emerges from the pandemic, the role of leadership in maintaining trust will continue to be crucial. In a world where more interaction is carried out online, those factors that sustain trustworthiness, such as brand, customer service and culture, all of which are underpinned by effective leadership, become even more important.  

This blog has examined the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the culture and leadership of FS firms. In our forthcoming blog, we examine the final factor that FS need to consider.

This blog is based on a survey of 501 employees working in financial services in London, which was undertaken by YouGov on 5 to 11 May 2020.