The Great Trust Crisis

Feb 7, 2022

From day one Frond has been a remote team because we believe it’s a better way to work together. Nothing beats taking a mid-afternoon walk when you feel your creative energy ebb, or working into the night when inspiration strikes, knowing you can take it easy with a cup of coffee and a book the next morning.

But we would be lying if we said there weren’t tough days too. Awkward Zoom moments, Slack miscommunications that never would’ve happened face to face, and that creeping sense of burnout that can set in working from home every day of a pandemic. We see these pain points in the remote work experience as an opportunity for innovation, so we’re deeply curious about them.

Among our favorite resources are the studies about remote work that have come out since the start of the pandemic. They give us a snapshot of what’s working, and what isn’t. And something we’ve noticed in nearly all of these studies is this curious paradox:

Workers clearly prefer remote work

And yet... they report record levels of burnout since switching

It’s just pandemic stress driving burnout, teams are working more

What's going on here?

We believe there’s an invisible resource driving this paradox: trust.

Not only is the way that we’re working eating away at trust, but because of its asynchronous nature, remote work requires more of it. Without an office we are starved of the coffee breaks and hallways chats that build trust. And with less trust, we are more likely to misunderstand each other, and so we compensate by overcommunicating and “performing work.” Which of course, leaves us exhausted and with even less trust in our tanks. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s burning us out.

We’re in a bind right now. How do we get out of it?

For our team, the answer lies in better understanding what trust really is.

For that we turn to the expert: John Gottman, the famed psychologist and professor emeritus at University of Washington known for his foundational work in relationships. Not only did his research result in an entirely new approach to couples therapy, it had much further reaching implications. His groundbreaking methodology allowed researchers to codify and then measure interactions between people in new ways, and has been applied to research not only into marriage but also parent/child relationshipsoffice teamworkand even soldiers in Iraq. That broad application has unearthed elemental truths that now inform larger theories of human relationships.

And, of course, at the very center of human relationships lies trust. Research into its properties and dynamics upend conventional wisdom in many ways. Traditionally we think of trust as dependability. We trust people that do what they say they will. Yet, Gottman says, “Dependability is not enough. I can trust you to always be evil.”

So if trust isn’t linked dependability, where does it come from?

“I have to trust you to be more [than dependable]. I have to trust you to care about me.”

Care might feel like an unusual word in a work context, but there has been a great deal of research into it. Studies have found that care at work boils down to something called “emotional acknowledgement”, the act of noticing non-verbal cues and acknowledging them. It’s as simple as mentioning to a frowning co-worker “you look upset this afternoon” or a smiling teammate “you seem excited today.” It seems like a small thing, but it has enormous power.

In evolutional biology there’s an idea called costly signaling theory. This theory says that a small act can be seen as a sign of genuine intentions if it was a risk for the sender. So, for example, a peacock displaying its feathers is an “honest signal” of fitness to mate because it also attracts predators. It’s risking its own safety to communicate.

In a work context, acknowledging someones feelings at work is and “honest signal” because it’s both a display of vulnerability, and shows a willingness to get involved in complex (risky!) situations with difficult emotions.

And all helps explain the trust crisis in remote work. The remote workplace is almost entirely comprised of text based tools that are focused on the content of work: email, documents, chat, code, etc. An unintended side effect of those content focused tools is that they strip away the emotional context that we bring to the work. Building trust isn’t about what we say, it’s about how we say it, but we don’t have a place for that anymore.

And that’s where we come in...

At Frond we want to help remote teams work in new ways that build trust as intuitively as they when they shared the same office. We’re building tools that make creating community online feel natural, that way teams can shape their culture, as opposed to having their tools shape it for them. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest!

The Frond Team