Last updated: 02.08.18

How managers can build trust in a digital workplace

Trust is widely recognised as one of the most important elements of a good working environment, and is regularly touted as being critical to both employers and employees alike. However, it doesn’t always come naturally, and contrary to what one might expect, is something that can be worked on as part of internal business development. There are lots of different people involved in creating a culture of trust, but in this article we’re going to take a look at how managers can build trust in their teams, and between themselves and their direct reports. And in the spirit of modern workplaces, we’re going to consider how this works in a fully digital environment.

What are the benefits of a trusting workplace?


The first thing that we need to cover is, of course, the benefits that trust can bring. After all, building such a culture isn’t always easy, and in business there has to be a value in expending any kind of effort. Fortunately, it’s well known that there are considerable benefits to having a culture of trust at work. Generally, this stems from the fact that people who feel trusted also feel valued and those who feel valued are far more likely to put more effort into their work. This boosts productivity and ultimately will affect a business’ fortunes, especially when replicated across the whole company, whether small or large. Being valued makes you want to give back. It also increases loyalty, which is a major benefit in ensuring staff retention, and can be critical should a business go through tough times.


The takeaway then, is that trust is of major benefit to all businesses, and if you as a manager can spot opportunities to increase it, then it’s worth doing.

What exactly is trust?


The next thing that we need to cover is the simple point that trust can mean different things to different people. If we don’t understand this, then we struggle to build trust with those who have slightly different ideas. For example, for some people, trust might mean being trusted with confidential information. For others, trust is knowing someone will make the best business decision. It might even mean that you trust someone to make a decision that they believe is the best one, but that it might not work out in the end.


Understanding that trust is complex will go a long way to helping you as a manager connect with the employees that report to you. If you have a better feel for how these people see trust, then you’ll be able to respond appropriately. Of course, for this to be effective, you need to be a good communicator. You’ll need to pick up on cues that tell you what your employees value. For example, employees who jump at the chance to try new things are likely to feel that you trust them if you allow them to take on new responsibilities. Employees you consult regularly might feel that you trust their opinions.

How is trust different in a digital workplace?


Many advertisers, and especially communication companies, regularly boast how the digital age has made us all more connected. And this is certainly true. But it’s also made communication different, and communication is central to trust. One of the biggest changes is a reduction in face-to-face or even telephone conversations. Yes, email has been around for a very long time now, but instant messaging services such as Slack have further moved communication into the digital space. Where just a few years ago you might have walked over to someone else’s desk for a chat, you might now just IM them.


This has the effect of making nuances somewhat harder to convey, which means that it can be harder to show that you trust someone. Discussions are more compartmentalised, organised, and without being clear, ambiguity is common. It doesn’t mean that the methods of building trust are completely different to how they used to be, but it does mean that you need to think more carefully about what you say digitally, because it’s often permanent -  you’ll struggle to take it back, and you don’t have the body language or tone to further augment the conversation.


Of course, the digital revolution has also meant that we have better tools and data on our side too. While trust might seem like something that has nothing to do with graphs and reports, it is actually something that can be helped with technology. We’ll take a look at this in the next section.

Methods for building trust


We’re now going to go through some of the main tips that will help you as a manager build trust between you and the employees you’re responsible for. Not all will apply in all situations, and several are more ongoing approaches than individual tactics that you can employ, but by considering all of them, you’ll be able to really improve the trust between you and your employees, and hopefully encourage a trusting environment.

Honesty and directness


This is really quite important in an age where it’s perfectly possible for workers to go through a whole day with only digital communication with their colleagues and employer. Make sure that you’re honest and clear with your employees, especially if you’re communicating through IM or email. Doubt is never conducive to trust, and it easily comes about as the result of ambiguity, especially when coming from someone senior. Endeavour to be clear with your employees at all times, so that they understand where you’re coming from.

Personal relationships


We discussed earlier the issue of trust meaning different things to different people - this is key. Always look to build individual relationships with your employees so that you can understand what they value in terms of trust, and tailor your approach to them. Some managers can be responsible for dozens of employees, which can make it difficult to fully build relationships with everyone, but if you simply remember to treat everyone as a real person rather than a number or workplace capacity, you’ll go a long way in winning their trust.

Build people up


Following on from the previous point, one effective tactic that you should use is to build people up wherever possible. If your employees feel like you’re on side and you have their interests at heart, they’ll be more likely to trust you. There are lots of ways of doing this, ranging from helping them through mistakes, to coaching their career progression. E-learning is one of the digital benefits we have these days, and it can be very helpful in this regard.

Always give credit


As a manager, it’s your job to praise and reward employees for doing their job well, and few things upset employees as much as not being given credit, or worse - giving someone else credit for something that they’ve done. Giving people credit shows that you’re pleased with their work, and that you’ll trust them to do a good job in future. If this is public, then the employee will also trust you to give credit where it’s due, so it’s always a good idea to copy anyone relevant into such emails, or congratulate in public channels.

Welcome criticism


Aloof managers are generally unlikeable, and are often seen as being untrustworthy too. If you make a mistake, then the best policy is to always be open about it, and invite people to explain why you’ve done something wrong. If you try to hide it or shut down criticism, employees will simply not trust that you’re doing your own job properly.

Avoid bias


If you have obvious favourites, then you won’t be widely trusted. It’s as simple as that. Everyone will naturally like some of their employees more than others, but you need to make sure that nobody feels that this is the case in your workplace. It’s OK to show that you trust some employees more than others if the reasons are genuine and publicly known, but otherwise you need to keep things as equal as you can.

Be trusting


It sounds simple, but it’s so very true. If you’re willing to give your trust first, then trust from the recipient will follow, and this sets off a chain that eventually results in a trusting working environment. It can be difficult for some managers, especially if they’re coming into a new team and they like to do everything themselves, but sometimes it’s important to learn how to let go and trust others.

Management training


Our final suggestion is to consider more formal training that looks at how you can build trust. Sometimes it really helps to follow a structured approach, particularly if you’re looking to be the best manager that you can possibly be. Online leadership courses are available that go into more detail about how you can be a more effective leader and manager. Click here to be taken to the Virtual College leadership and management section.