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Perspectives: Transparency isn't trust
Return-to-office represents a backslide and a trust gap
For this week’s Perspectives, I chatted with Nola Simon, a hybrid/remote futurist located in Ontario, Canada. She’s an international B2B consultant who has advised hybrid/remote work teams for the last 10 years. She has deep expertise in hybrid/remote strategy and operations and has the ear of senior transformation consultants and futurists around the globe.
I met Nola on the platform formerly known as Twitter, and we then connected on LinkedIn and over a few calls. She also has a podcast — Hybrid/Remote Centre of Excellence — and I recently recorded an episode with her! Check out more of Nola’s work at nolasimon.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Burgess Yang: Tell me about your first experiences with remote work.
Nola Simon: I often tell people my origin story. I try not to say villain, because depending on your perspective on remote work, I am either the hero or the villain.
My company started doing a pilot for remote work and work from home in 2012. And then they pulled it from us and we were forced back into the office in 2013.
Then my kids got lice. And my manager was a nice person, but she was so afraid of making mistakes. She gave me a week off so I could take care of my kids, but she wouldn’t answer whether it was going to be paid. It gave me so much anxiety.
It turned out that the company ended up covering it all. But the nightmare continued for another two months, because our school had a parent volunteer who would randomly do checks for lice. And she kept targeting my kids. The school kept on calling me and saying, “You have to come pick them up” and there was nothing I could do about it.
Now I had a problem because I was gone so much. I was borderline getting myself into trouble. Like it was a performance issue.
I went back to my manager and talked to her about why she had such difficulty communicating with me. It was because she didn't feel empowered herself. She was trying to do the right thing. But there was a power dynamic within that management team, where they were playing favorites, all the time. And there was no HR policy really to guide that; it was the manager’s discretion.
The systems that most companies have in place really aren't designed to empower managers to really make effective decisions. And they're not powerful enough to really counteract those informal power dynamics that sometimes happen.
ABY: What do you think companies should do, ideally, to empower managers with regard to leave policies?
NS: It's about trust, right? It’s about consistency as well.
I'm going to tell you one more story. My mother had dementia and I had to go on compassionate care leave. When I called my manager to let her know, the answer was, “You can’t do that.” And I'm like, “I can too.” Because I know my stuff. I have a little sideline where I investigate employment law. So I said, “You research; I'm going to do what I'm gonna do. And you’re going to have to figure it out.”
It's a policy that's not used very often. It's rare that people know that there's compassionate care [in Canada], know what the regulations are, and know what you actually have to do to be able to take it. I had all my ducks in a row. I was able to give my manager everything she needed within 24 hours. Because I knew she wouldn't have the gumption to be able to guide me.
I started getting calls from other people who knew that I'd been successful in negotiating everything. I ended up being sort of an informal adviser. People would call me and say, “This is what's happening. Can you tell me what I need to do?” And that's an awkward place to be as well.
ABY: What leads to that kind of inconsistency in policies and how they’re applied?
NS: Rachel Bostman (world-renowned trust expert and author) has a definition of trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.”
How do you build trust, fundamentally? It is about valuing your people and upholding the values you say you believe in and being consistent about it. It becomes toxic when people don't really understand trust. They don't understand how to be trustworthy. And they don't understand what transparency actually is.
Transparency isn't necessarily trust. Transparency actually means that you want to know everything. You can “see” it, so you don't have to be uncomfortable. You don't have to sit in that unknown.
If you think about a lot of the toxic behaviors in corporations, a lot of it is trying to actually put policies and procedures, monitoring, and surveillance in place to avoid having to trust.
I trusted my manager to feel unsupported in her role. She was a good person, but I needed somebody braver. That is something that companies don't look at enough.
ABY: How is a lack of trust related to remote work?
NS: Employees are obligated to trust the employer, but employers are not obligated to trust their employees. I overworked excessively. Because I was constantly trying to prove myself to my team.
There’s a performative aspect that goes into that. Individuals are so afraid of losing flexibility. You over-compensate. And you think that’s going to keep you safe, except that it leads to overworking and burnout.
Then I had a massive car accident in 2018. I had pneumonia and I didn't realize it had gotten that bad. I’d been invited to talk about silos and present at a meeting with the EVP and CEO of the American division. And on the way to work, my lung collapsed on the freeway into Toronto. I hit a fully loaded double concrete hauler. It destroyed my car and I was off for two months. I’d been working 14-hour days to keep my status “green” and make sure people knew I was working, which led to that car accident.
Trust is really about character and capability. Are you capable of doing the action that needs to be done? And do you have the character to stand up and do it? This requires a lot of self-reflection and understanding and willingness to look at how you are part of the problem. Managers need leader support.
If you look at return-to-office mandates, the biggest issue is that people are fearing loss. Everybody’s dealing with some version of loss. And we’re hardwired, as humans, to avoid loss. It’s neuroscience, right? Leaders are perceiving that they’ve lost something since 2018. They feel less secure; they feel less confident. They feel like they’re sitting too much in the unknown.
But [with remote work] employees have felt like they’ve finally gotten autonomy and are trusted to do the work. And we’re backsliding into a trust gap, basically.
ABY: How can companies build the necessary trust and transparency?
NS: They have to fundamentally understand what their strategies are and what their goals are. They need supreme clarity on what it is they're trying to achieve, and what it means for people to actually perform and get the outcomes and outputs that they're looking for.
If you take a job description, and you look at what the work that you're asking employees to do, are they set up for success? Is the work clear? Does it tie back into what the company is actually trying to achieve? How many times have you heard it reported that employees don't actually know how their daily tasks help the company make money?
Then you go into the storytelling and how the company tells the story of the businesses: what the what the work is, how they work, and how they interact with their customers. Storytelling can be so manipulative. Because there's an agenda built into it.
You have to be really careful with storytelling. That affects marketing, it affects communications, and it affects policies and procedures. If you've got roadmaps, or any kind of training, onboarding… that's all storytelling, right? Companies need to ask themselves: Is there continuity? Is there a throughline in all of this?
Look at Zoom, calling everybody back to the office and the CEO doing all of those interviews. They just trashed their brand. That is so related to trust and storytelling.
ABY: Are there ways in which transparency can be helpful?
NS: I think that a level of transparency could be helpful when you're meeting people where they are. And that's where you can personalize for neurodivergence or preference or whatever happens to go on in that person's life, if they feel comfortable disclosing that.
It comes back to trust, respect, and psychological safety. That's really where I think all of this goes off the rails. Companies can't get past that mindset that they deserve to be trusted, but employees don't. They walk into a relationship where they're automatically trusted, but everybody else has to earn their trust. Employees have to prove it. And honestly, “proving it” is detrimental to remote work.
It's easy to work in the business and not on the business. In order to be more trustworthy, companies really have to understand what it is to trust, and to behave in such a way that they're trustworthy. They have to identify that as a priority. And they have to do that every step of the way.
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