· 2 min read · Features

Uncommon sense: Trust boosts the bottom line

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Recent research shows only 8% of companies trusted employees to work away from the office.

One of the most important features of the future workplace, I believe, will be a strong element of trust between employer and employee. Trust has always been significant in the production of good work but in the supervised workplace of the 20th century it became a rare commodity.

There is a coffee shop at my railway station where a little sign says that if the assistant doesn't give me a receipt with my change, I can have my purchases free of charge. The notice is repugnant because it means the shop-owner does not trust the assistant. Now I have worked in the retailing industry and I know the fiddles and the stealing that goes on. But not everybody steals and most employees deserve to be trusted in the first instance. With high levels of trust a business can make economies in avoiding the kind of safeguards that are felt necessary in other circumstances.

If employees could be left to get on with their work, there would be less need for expensive supervision. Much work today can be accomplished remotely from home, yet a recent piece of research among 3,500 employees found that very few managers trusted their staff to work alone. The research, carried out by BT and Nortel, suggested that only 8% of UK companies trusted their employees to work away from the office. Yet the same research revealed that two fifths of the workers surveyed were confident that they could be more productive if working remotely.

The latter finding did not surprise me. Offices have become poor places for work that requires concentration. But the discovery that so few employers trust staff to work on their own is dismaying and surprising. It shows that, in spite of all the technologies that exist to make remote working attractive, managers can not break free of hands-on supervision.

This seems odd, since managers can keep tabs on remote workers if they feel they must. Much of the work undertaken in call centres can be achieved now in home offices, using communications systems that integrate voice, data within fixed and wireless business channels. These allow teams to work together, dealing with customer queries whether in or out of the office and managers can monitor call-handling performance.

So if it's not a lack of monitoring systems that unsettles managers about home-working, what is it? I think it is something far more deep seated than an issue of expediency. If people do not need close supervision what happens to the management job? It becomes a more admin, screen-based role and something else is lost - a sense of power over people that supports the self-esteem of some.

It could be that employees are not trusted to work remotely, but I think additional forces are at work. First there's traditional thinking that if employees are not at their desks, they are not working. Second, I believe there is something unsettling in supervising people you cannot see. Third, there must be an element of job preservation.

These attitudes are costing businesses millions of pounds every year. BT reckons its 70,000 flexible workers, many of whom work from home or out on the road for much of their time, have saved the company £500 million in building costs and led to a 30% rise in productivity. Response times have improved and that means happier customers. Staff are more loyal for being trusted, and people are more likely to stay with the business because they can work flexibly. Who cares if you mow your lawn at 10 in the morning, as long as you shift your workload?

The answer, I fear, is that some people do care, particularly if their work chains them to the office. Home-working can create envy among those who cannot work remotely and some of these people are managers. They must learn to live with this, nevertheless, since trust is touching the bottom line.

- Richard Donkin is author of 'Blood, Sweat and Tears' and 'The Evolution of Work', richard.donkin@haymarket.com.