The Fragility of Trust

Covid-19 has made both the benefits and challenges of remote work widely known when most knowledge workers moved to remote work. In addition, to benefits such as flexibility and work satisfaction most employees have suffered from social isolation when meeting their coworkers at the workplace has not been possible anymore. Popular social media sites have been filled with pictures of employees talking to their plants and eating lonely lunches behind their laptops. Organizations have taken up different initiatives to lessen employee social isolation, such as top management blogs, video meetings, and virtual coffee breaks.

In a series of studies, we have examined the social implications of remote work during the pandemic. For instance, we have studied the extent to which essential and non-essential workers during the pandemic may experience different social stressors (read the research here) and the extent to which workers may feel more or less isolated as a result of remote work and communication technology use (find the research article here). This research has also been covered by the economist earlier this year in their documentary “The Remote Work Revolution: How to get it Right?

Furthermore, our efforts have been directed at understanding how remote work has affected interpersonal trust dynamics. Trust represents an important feature of interpersonal relationships between supervisors and colleagues (vertical trust) and between colleagues (horizontal trust) in organizations. Trust is essential to many social relationships but has also proven to be quite volatile, or as a former Dutch statesman Johan Thorbecke noted, ‘trust comes on foot, but leaves on horseback.’ This age-old adage that trust is easier to destroy than create is confirmed by various academics, suggesting that trust-eroding experiences are more visible, noticeable, and carry more weight in judgements. Our research has demonstrated that trust is indeed negatively affected by physical distance and isolation during the pandemic. Interestingly, it is not the frequency of communication that underlies this relationship, but much more the quality of the information exchanges and communication that erodes interpersonal trust. The findings of this research have been featured in a recent article in by the Atlantic in an article by Jerry Useem on “the end of trust.” The article connects our findings on trust dynamics in the workplace to the broader impact of a steady decline in trust on the American economy.