How to Build Trust in HR in the COVID-Era Workplace


COVID-19 has upended so much of what we thought we knew about our organizations, the people that inhabit them and the way our work gets done. With all that change and uncertainty comes a need for trust. Trust in the organization and trust in the people that create the bridge between leadership and employees; HR.

You’ve no doubt heard an HR thought leader say this is the time for HR to take the lead, to become the business partner it always has wanted to be and to push organizational culture to the next level. But there are no shortage of challenges as moving to remote environments and ensuring safety for essential onsite workers presents numerous hurdles toward doing that.

A recent study from Gallup found that while leaders are prioritizing agility and speed in transitioning to remote environments and dealing with the challenges that COVID throws at them in terms of operating the business, what employees are looking for comes down to four key areas: trust, stability, compassion and hope.

Of these, the trust component is perhaps the most important as people within the organization need to trust more than the president or CEO. In fact, as noted in a recent insights report from Deloitte, trust has various components, be it physical trust or emotional, digital or financial trust. Trust in HR is vital to successful mitigation of COVID’s consequences and cultivating it in every sense will lead to a speedier recovery when all this is behind us.

How to Build Trust

Building trust is an ongoing journey and one that has several steps. The first step is creating an environment in which care is felt. As Elizabeth Pavese-Kaplan from the Limeade Institute noted during a recent webinar titled “The Power of Organizational Trust” sensing that the organization cares is intrinsically tied to an employee’s ability to trust.

“The research we’ve done really brings to life this connection between care and trust,” Pavese-Kaplan said. “Employees indicate when they feel the organization cares, they have higher levels of trust and when they don’t, they have more significant trust issues. So we have to start to look at the elements of a culture care and we see attributes like investing in employees and being supportive and flexible, those things really rose to the top.”

A big part of this starts with something that sounds simple, but is getting to be more complex in the COVID-era workplace; being present. This can be done in a variety of ways, from chatting with teams separately, to engaging managers on a regular basis and communicating candidly over virtual channels on a regular basis. Doing so will help create emotional and financial trust around job security and the company’s longevity that will aide in retention and keep your people committed to the long term future of the organization.

Employees need you to know what they’re dealing with and understand what impediments they face during trying times. Regular coaching conversations, particularly with managers, will prove highly effective in building a culture of trust as they serve as conduits for leadership’s messages of hope and organizational truth.

WEBINAR: Reimagining Pay to Drive Success in the Post COVID-19 Workplace

They also need you to listen and be responsive when they express concerns or frustrations. Nothing short of genuine empathy for their situation is going to aide in the development of trust across all levels. This relationship building will prove vital for those attempting to bring people back into physical locations.

An important factor to consider in doings so is the mental exhaustion everyone is facing around potential exposure to COVID-19. Bringing people back to physical locations has inherent risks that concern employees and could impact the health and wellbeing of their families. If the organization has made the decision to return people to work, it’s important to take steps to not only ensure a safe workplace, but maintain the same level engagement with employees that you would in remote environments and prioritize employee wellbeing with mental health and physical fitness initiatives.

In addition, many employees, particularly younger generations, want to be a part of the solution. If your company can contribute to the cause of defeating coronavirus in some way, then being agile and moving towards helping the community in some way will go a lot further toward creating emotional trust than attempting to stick to business as usual.

For example, a number of breweries and distilleries across the nation have focused a portion of their efforts on making hand sanitizer and a Michigan-based mattress company repurposed its plant in a number of days to manufacture PPE for frontline workers. These are examples of companies looking out for the greater societal good by addressing public need, and it goes a long way with employees who feel good about the fact that they’re doing something to help combat the virus. Regardless of industry, ask what unique offering your organization can make to support the community during this time.

In the end, keeping as many employees in remote environments until the worst of COVID has passed is going to go the furthest on demonstrating the level of care that Pavese-Kaplan spoke of and thus, creating the type of trust needed to weather the storm. But no matter where employees and leaders are, there are things that can be done to build trust, build the brand and ultimately ensure that you maintain a healthy and committed workforce.

The pandemic’s effects are being felt in different ways by different organizations, but Pavese-Kaplan can already see some positives coming out of the newfound connections being made in organizations that are prioritizing the building of trust at this time.

“We’re seeing a dip in trust at first, but a rebuilding of that over time during COVID-19 because of the way organizations are capitalizing on their reach to their employees and being really thoughtful and proactive in how they’re communicating,” Pavese-Kaplan said. “Organizations are really doubling down on their commitment to people because they’re seeing the fragility in the employer-employee relationship and it’s putting them on the path toward stronger relationships between leadership and employees.”

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