Project Management Institute

More than Tech: Why Virtual Work Requires Trust Above All

Stack of rocks on a rocky beach with water and mountain in the distance

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

08 October 2020

In the early months of 2020, organizations around the world were compelled to quickly convert their organizations to virtual workplaces. Early on, leaders were rightfully focused on ensuring that their teams had the technical infrastructure in place to succeed. But even the most advanced tools are worth little unless leveraged within a culture of trust.

In the early months of 2020, organizations around the world were compelled to quickly convert their organizations to virtual structures practically overnight. Early on, leaders were rightfully focused on ensuring their teams had the technological infrastructure in place to succeed. But the most advanced video and collaboration tools are worth very little if they aren’t leveraged within a culture of trust. 

Trust is a complex matter—something that a team member, a leader, and even an organization has to earn, not just through words but through actions. Trust creates the honesty, clarity, and transparency that companies need to thrive in a new virtual workscape focused on digital transformation. 

Technology is essential, but not enough

Often, we are busy chasing the latest technological innovations, viewing them as the means to digitally transform our organizations. It’s easy to forget that it's actually people who drive change—people working together to fulfill common goals.  

A virtual workforce needs more than clinical assurances about infrastructure, technologies, and systems security. It is crucial to create bonds that connect people, whether it's a manager to her team or a business to its workforce. A workforce connected by trust will benefit from improved agility, flexibility, and enhanced staff morale. When there's trust, progress skyrockets, and businesses move faster on their digital transformation journeys.  

Trust must be baked into your organization’s culture. Consider Siemens' new remote work policy, about which CEO Roland Busch says, “We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results.” That’s an example of baking trust into your culture.  

Benefits of Remote Work Go Both Ways

I believe the option to work outside the office is the greatest workplace transformation of our time. Remote work allows employees to achieve better work-life balance by eliminating long commute times, increasing flexibility, and making it possible to live wherever one finds the greatest personal happiness.   

Businesses benefit from remote work as well. Research shows that workplace flexibility boosts profitability as well as employee productivity, performance, engagement, and retention.  

Many businesses may still be nervous at the prospect of allowing their employees to work and collaborate outside the office. Why? I believe the issue goes beyond technology. Companies can easily find vendors with solutions that support remote work. The issue continues to come down to organizational culture and trust. 

Remote but Not Alone

At the Project Management Institute (PMI), practically our entire global staff is working virtually right now—an unprecedented shift for us, as with many organizations. We have learned a great deal over the last several months; for one thing, it has become evident that a majority of roles don’t require employees to be in the office to get the job done. 

I am not minimizing the human need for social connection. And as my CEO Sunil Prashara recently noted, collaboration and relationship building often come more naturally in person. But, with most employees working from home, the business is functioning perfectly well as it did before our work-from-home requirements went into effect.  

Enhancing Virtual Workplaces Through Connectivity, Communication, and Collaboration

At PMI, we have enabled our virtual workspace through technological platforms that allow engagement and interactivity. However, the human element—that sense of belonging—doesn't just happen through the deployment of new technology. It's baked into the PMI culture by our CEO and leadership team.  

In addition to our technical solutions, we have kept three Cs—connectivity, communication, and collaboration—at heart. As an organization, we have instituted weekly virtual coffee break mixers, as well as daily, monthly, and quarterly updates from leadership and employees at all levels.  

We are also addressing employee’s emotional well-being through a new program designed to help employees overcome stress, anxiety, and adversity with skill and live more purposeful professional and personal lives, bringing focus to what matters most.  

The way that leaders guide their people, by trusting them and viewing them as multi-faceted human beings, leaves a profound impact on making remote work a success for employees and the business. 

Being Productive in the New Normal

Since shelter-in-place orders have gone into effect in many of the communities where our employees live, I have seen tremendous support from the leadership and my colleagues at every level of the organization. This support has been invaluable in helping everyone stay focused on priorities and, most importantly, endeavor to bring balance, despite our “new normal” (which feels anything but normal). 

Businesses around the world have faced identical challenges in transitioning to virtual work. But in the vast majority of cases, its company culture, not technological limitations, that keeps employees from being comfortable and productive working remotely. And it will be culture that will prevent some organizations from embracing remote work once we're past COVID-19. 

At PMI, we've noticed an increase in productivity since our switch to complete virtual work. But, while productivity is not a concern, I'm all too aware that without a physical separation between work and personal life, people are at risk of working longer hours and burning out. That’s why as a leader, I set an example by announcing when I’m taking a break during the day, taking time off, and protecting time off of my team members. 

Future of Work is Flexible 

If there's one thing that will re-define the workplace of the future, it's employee empowerment. Even before the pandemic, flexible working policy was table stakes for attracting, hiring, retaining, and developing the best talent. Employees now expect flexibility, whether in the face of our current challenges or to manage ordinary commitments outside of work.  

I have seen incredible trust among our teams at PMI the last couple of months as we've all had to make (often uncomfortable) adaptations and accommodation in our professional and personal lives. When we return to the office, I am confident that our leaders, and those at organizations the world over, will recognize the value of remote work for their employees and their businesses. We'll all be better for it. 

WFH – a Game Changer

The mass work-from-home shift as a result of COVID-19 is opening the aperture for culture, technology, and leadership at the workplace. This virtualization of the office is not only a good business continuity measure but also a strategic action for attracting the right talent and activating untapped workforces across the globe in the long term. 

Smart organizations will recognize this shift. They will put in place people, processes, and technology to manage businesses in a dynamic and scalable way that global business environments demand.  

And at the center of their success, we will find cultures rooted in trust.