Trust: Making it Work

In a much overlooked 2007 article, “Dignity at Work” (in the journal Organization), sociologist Andrew Sayer outlines the connections between employee autonomy, trust in employees, respect for their work, and being taken seriously as the foundations for what he calls ‘dignity at work.’ Sayer was approaching the subject from perhaps a more critical perspective than most corporate decision makers, but it would seem that over the thirteen years since he published the article more and more companies (and leaders) tend to agree with him. But why dignity? And why trust?

McGregor’s Moment

Sixty years ago Douglas McGregor spoke about these very issues in his class book, The Human Side of Enterprise. In the book he made the distinction between two fundamentally opposing approaches to managing people- Theory X and Theory Y. According to McGregor, most managers (then) followed a Theory X approach. Theory X management is based on the assumption that employees are (all other things being equal) more or less like children, that they dislike work, and that they cannot be trusted to complete work on their own or on their own terms. And that they need to be managed by line-of-sight and with carrots and sticks.

Theory Y managers, McGregor suggested, assume that employees (all other things being equal) are adults and that they like work and that when given a long-leash (to do work autonomously), they respond positively and do better work. More recently, management guru Gary Hamel suggests that, sadly, most managers today still follow a Theory X approach to managing their people. The persistence of ~30% (or slightly above 30%) employee engagement level across the American corporate landscape would suggest that Hamel is correct in his assessment. If Hamel is correct (the data seems to suggest that he is), then it makes sense to ask Why?

It Boils Down to Trust

At the heart of this conversation is the issue of trust. It is a straightforward question: Do companies trust their employees to self-organize and self-manage? For over fifty years the answer to this question has been a resounding NO. But ‘times they are a changin.’ Within the last decade or so more companies are embracing employee flexibility of different types, from flex work, to work sharing, to activity based working, to remote working, to coworking. Each of these ‘new ways of working’ implies higher levels of trust than have been conventionally the case in most firms. This is great news!

Bridging the Flexibility Gap

The new firm, Werk.co, reports recently that there is a significant ‘flexibility gap’ between the types and levels of flexibility that employees currently have and the flexibility that they would like to have. This can be flexibility to work closer to home to take care of children or aging parents, or to work in the evening hours when one is more productive. That is what flexibility is all about- choice, autonomy, and trust. How do you create an employer-employee contract that works for both parties?

Already, 54% of American workers work remotely once a month, 48% work remotely once a week, and 30% work remotely full time. This suggests that more and more firms are moving beyond the platitudes and are trusting their employees to get work done on their own terms. The productivity dividend of remote workers is well known, so these data are good news all the way around.

Different Types of Flexibility

Flexible working, though, does not just take the form of remote working. Activity based working (ABW) and coworking are now squarely part of the mix, as are myriad hybrid programs that combine coworking, remote working, ABW, etc. The challenge now is: How to systematically manage flexibility across the company? If we are going to subscribe to Ed Lawler’s notion (from many years ago) that employees (and teams) should be allowed to individualize their work routines (in ways that work for them), then there needs to be some process and/or tool that can keep track of employee work styles and preferences as well as when and where employees and teams are most energetic and productive.

The OpenWork Flexibility Program

At OpenWork Agency we are thinking a lot about this. Our thesis is that flexibility (which fuels autonomy, respect, and dignity) will be the lifeblood of tomorrow’s high performing and innovative companies. Companies that bake flexibility into their EVP will get the better employees, because top talent is by definition self motivated, self organizing, and autonomous. Employees that need to be told what to do and watched doing it will soon be replaced by machine learning, anyway, so it makes no sense to build management systems around them.

To address this, we have recently developed a flexibility program that helps companies manage flexibility for their employees. We are in the beta days of this, but we are eager to talk with companies that are looking to more effectively manage flexibility across their organizations. You can check out the program below:

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