It’d be naive to say the past year hasn’t altered relationships between leaders and employees. CEOs have been challenged by seismic movements like the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, forcing an acknowledgement of the issue and a demand for change. They’ve had to start showing more empathy in support of isolated teams, and some have even shown their own vulnerabilities. But arguably, the biggest change in how we work long term is only now emerging: hybrid working, and the shift in trust that this is likely to bring.Written by Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of Utopia

Splitting the working week between the office and home is becoming an employee expectation. We’ve shown we can be productive from home – but we’ve also discovered that the office has its merits. So we want both. For leadership teams, this fluidity brings with it a trust issue.

Recent research found that one in five firms have admitted to spying on employees working from home. It’s a stark figure, and with remote morphing into hybrid as lockdown restrictions ease, leaders must cede their Big Brother tactics and encourage a spirit of entrepreneurialism to help their teams thrive.

But trust is not something that can just be switched on – it needs to be built. And building it for teams requires regular, open conversations that unlock mutual understanding and deeper connections.

How empathy can build trust?

Utopia’s recent research found that 36% of working parents feel that there isn’t enough in place to support them – spinning the working and homeschooling plates has taken its toll. This is where inclusive leadership can come in.

One-size-fits-all strategies have always been limited and will be virtually ineffective in the hybrid model. A nuclear, one-child family isn’t going to face the same challenges as a single mum-of-three. Initiating regular one-on-one catch-ups, even if it’s five minutes ahead of a meeting, gives the floor to staff with individual challenges, and provides a chance to work collaboratively to solve them.

Employers can gain valuable insight from this: for example, why some days will, frankly, be less productive. Those caring for relatives could need additional time on their lunch breaks, while some might require paid leave. Vulnerable conversations can serve as a reminder that working from home is more than just Zoom calls in pyjamas.

This matters on a wider scale, too. With a news agenda riddled by job loss figures, you’d assume there’d be an upsurge in presenteeism as people hold on to their current roles. But Utopia’s research found that if leaders fall short on showing empathy and cultural intelligence, 39% will hunt for an organisation that does. Empathy can sustain retention and unlock creativity for remote employees – they aren’t caged in fear wondering if leaders are monitoring them.

Belonging in the hybrid world

We know that offices aren’t going to look the way they did before the pandemic; many are going to serve other purposes, or simply remain half full. But this also means that employees will increasingly take the reins in deciding what their office set-ups look like.

Fragmented environments will make belonging for all team members a fresh challenge. Some will be at their office desks, others trying to connect through Zoom. But there are quick hacks leaders can implement to ensure every employee feels part of the mould. In fact, it can be as simple as everyone dialling in virtually for a meeting if one colleague can’t be physically present, so that one person doesn’t feel excluded.

It’s important to note that not every employee is looking forward to a return to the office. Many prefer the home set-up, and some employees, particularly those who are neurodiverse, may be thriving in their curated routines, away from the social buzz and background noise of an office.

The organisations offering choice, while making every employee feel equally valued, will win on the engagement scale. Regular check-ins, as would occur naturally in an office, can be used as an opportunity to explore what should be done to complement routines and give staff the option to join an after-work occasion – ‘option’ being the key word there.

But these check-ins will fall flat if they’re thinly veiled opportunities to spy.  They must have genuine intentions to protect employee wellbeing and boost morale across the board.

Trust is key to business growth

A supportive, trusting leadership will drive psychological safety in organisations, and result in high-performing teams.

Psychological safety gives employees the green light to be authentic, think creatively and share ideas, as well as helping them feel part of an organisation’s fabric.

But it also means that mistakes are positioned as learning curves rather than strikes against them. Consistent, supportive feedback that steers and nurtures, while encouraging entrepreneurialism, will quickly help employees progress their skills.

Because the alternative can be damaging. Leaders who habitually micromanage risk stifling growth and damaging confidence. It plays into the age-old saying that still resonates today: employees leave because of managers, not companies.

Employees deserve to feel valued without their abilities being called into question. By integrating emotionally supportive environments, both leaders and employees can have honest conversations about the issues faced in and out of work. Instilling feelings of belonging, better engagement from employees, and deeper connections that naturally progress into long-term, trusting relationships.