Trust in the workplace

by FM Media
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Workspace design and management are complementary processes that can have a critical incidence on trust formation and maintenance. DR BRIAN PURDEY of Bond University’s Mirvac School of Sustainable Development imparts how they interact to enable trust, satisfaction, motivation and performance.

Every business now has to address the challenges of increasingly turbulent, complex and unpredictable operating environments. One response is to increase flexibility and streamline business processes, using information technology to lower transaction costs, enable new organisation forms and support different work practices.
Corresponding organisation change also enables more voluntary cooperation rather than being reinforced through formal systems, procedures or sanctions. The provision of physical space is also changing as it is called upon to play on a more supporting role for individual job tasks individual job tasks and team-working, as well as promoting cooperation, collaboration and trust.
Definitions of trust vary to include social and ethical facets or more strategic and calculative dimensions. As a psychological state, trust entails an assessment of vulnerability derived from uncertainty regarding the motives, intentions or actions of others upon whom one depends. This emotional basis for trust is common and forms an important part of relationships in the workplace.
Trust as choice behaviour involves assessing probabilities of gain or loss, expected utility calculations and conclusions about the economic motivations of others. Calculative trust established in work settings can facilitate performance, but is less enduring than trust that has a higher emotional content. Finally, trust also comprises individual attitudes towards others or the work environment.

Trust in the workplace has many potential benefits. High trust facilitates increased team interaction, successful collaboration, knowledge sharing, procedural efficacy and performance efficiency. High-trust environments correlate with high commitment, increased adaptability and organisational success, enhanced business growth and innovation. Innovation implies risk taking, which creates the opportunity for trust, which leads to risk taking.
Trust can also help lower transaction costs and provide motivation to work towards shared goals and objectives. In addition, trust facilitates spontaneous socialising, providing a source of social capital when other resources may be limited. Finally, employees are more likely to accept unfavourable decisions or outcomes when leadership motives and intentions can be trusted.

An individual’s trust stance or propensity to trust is built around one’s general beliefs about other people or situations and is critical to trust formation. It is a personal trait largely brought to the workplace, but also influenced by employee interactions within the workplace. The way workplace issues, including critical incidents in workspace design and management, are handled also helps build trust, because this has the potential to puncture office equilibrium, permanently changing good work relationships.
The workspace is something perceived by the occupant as their representation, though perhaps not specifically created or presented for the same purpose by designers. An employee’s perception of the workspace may also differ in terms of what is required for effective performance. A performance-expectation deficit may result in stress, which has to be resolved in the workplace, including in the dimensions of trust. Misunderstandings about the workplace can contribute to generating false truths about management’s commitment to employee welfare. Factors such as awareness, knowledge, meaning and technology contribute to these trust responses.
Workspace awareness is defined as the cognisance required to operate in a complex work environment. Poor awareness is a problem for team performance and is exacerbated as workload and stress increases. Critical workspace design elements include proximity, person location, visual and auditory indicators.
In building workspace awareness, however, individuals are susceptible to the illusion of attention, believing they notice more than they actually do ( Consequently, this awareness is often constructed using knowledge proxies, such as the opinions of others, including about specific workspace elements, spatial position, orientation and colours.
Personal knowledge about workplace situations is important, but is increasingly difficult to build in practice due to constant personnel changes, cultural diversity, and the use of distributed and virtual teams. Rapid information gathering under pressure to perform can increase vulnerability and lead to distrust.
New workplace technologies have many positive benefits, but can also undermine trust. Tracking systems installed to improve space utilisation or help manage work activity zones can inadvertently create distrust and foster resentment. Employees may perceive technology as more trustworthy than the person interfering with productivity.

Figure 1: Workplace as a trust enabler

Figure 1 indicates how the key aspects of workplace design and management interact to enable trust, satisfaction, motivation and performance. The workspace frames job tasks, information and spatial technologies provide an integrated ‘toolkit’ for work activities, while the former has a surveillance capability. Individuals build workspace awareness while perceiving and reacting to the overall situation context.
Within this framework, designers must deliver workspaces that promote behaviour directed towards performance. Job behaviour can be seen as a coherent set of actions separated by break points, which depend on the individual’s job purpose and situational factors. These interwoven themes lead to the creation of ‘activity zones’ – spaces within which similar work behaviours can take place – in order to improve performance.
Activity-based working conceives required behaviour firmly established within a portfolio of potentially overlapping zones, allowing the allocation of people, space and time resources to be linked to activity-based management accounting systems. Activity-based working, however, seeks to exploit the social dimensions of trust and as long as it can be maintained, there is a lesser requirement to provide other incentives, leading to lower overall transaction costs.
To build and maintain trust, designers are challenged to deliver on their design intention, building a perception of integrity, openness and functional competence in the design process. Employees must be genuinely engaged and trained to manipulate work environments to their own (job) advantage, not just for the benefit of the organisation. Ongoing engagement with management and users can help close the trust performance-expectations gap.
Trusting the motivations and intentions of management is also critical to success. Clearly this cannot happen if management overrides or ignores employee input. Management should avoid exercising its ‘at will’ right to control space with little regard for employee perceptions, or trying to justify its actions in the face of contradictory evidence – employees are not stupid!
To empower employees, critical workspace resources could be included in formal employee contracts or job descriptions, while ongoing evaluation of the workspace needs to be undertaken by trusted and independent parties in order to legitimise workspace awareness.
Workspace design and management are complementary processes that can have a critical incidence on trust formation and maintenance. Because the workspace itself reflects the underlying intentions and motivations of others, clarity, transparency, equity and consistency are critical design and management attributes. Surfacing the ‘right’ workplace knowledge prevents designers and managers from becoming overly arrogant, overcomes complacency and enables the organisation to become more vigilant, resulting in healthier, more resilient and trusting workplaces.

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