Executive Insider

Trust and Autonomy: The Surprising Keys to Tech Implementation


Exactly how many times did I check my phone in the last hour? Why did I spend so long reading that funny article my partner sent me? Is it too soon for me to get up for another cup of coffee? These are the kinds of stressful and unproductive questions that tomorrow’s workers will constantly be asking if new trends in workplace surveillance persist. Machine learning and automated data collection now provide employers with new ways to amass copious employee performance information. However, promises of identifying a more streamlined workflow, so often made by tech evangelists, don’t reflect the findings of studies on worker productivity.

Instead of creating a more efficient company, the unwelcome adoption of invasive monitoring systems or any other boundary-busting technologies is likely to have seriously unproductive outcomes. That’s why, when managers are implementing new tech — whether it be a time measurement app or a sales tracking tool — they must do so in a thoughtful way that cultivates trust among their employees.

Under Surveillance

The rise of machine learning has revolutionized the way companies conduct business, but it has also facilitated breaches of privacy. Enabled by pervasive data collection, potential abuses of power become a hazard in the workplace, where employees are subject to the policies of their employers.

Consider Crossover’s WorkSmart. This software tracks keyboard activity, monitors app usage, and even takes periodic webcam photos to create a digital “timecard” for each employee. Crossover’s founder and CEO, Andy Tryba, claims it’s a tool to help ensure that employees only get paid for the time they’re actually working, and he says that it can be used to encourage the most productive work behaviors. The fundamental flaw is that this technology destroys trust and cultivates fear.

The Trust Factor

Qualified employees should be able to manage time independently and strive to improve performance without intrusive digital oversight. They should also be accountable to clearly defined performance expectations. Businesses actually operate better when managers trust their employees to behave professionally and workers believe that their employers have faith in them to do their jobs.

The proven benefits of trust-based company culture surpass those that may come from data watchdoggery and micromanagement. In his Harvard Business Review article “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Paul J. Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, describes a scientific connection between trust and employee performance. Zak’s research revealed that in comparison to employees in low-trust environments, employees in high-trust organizations exhibited more desirable behaviors. These included 106% more energy and 74% less stress at work, along with significantly higher levels of productivity and engagement. Trust may seem like an old-fashioned value, but according to the numbers, it might just be what separates the most productive businesses from the stragglers.

The Tech Priority

Creating digital timecards, complete with randomly taken screenshots, is a quick and certain way to diminish trust between employee and manager. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that new technology adoption is and will continue to be a priority for companies of all sizes. PwC’s global 2020 survey found that in the realm of HR tech specifically, 74% of companies plan to boost their spending this year. When it comes to implementation, though, 82% are facing adoption challenges, and fewer than a third see the desired behavior changes as a result.

How can companies foster high-trust cultures and still reap the benefits that many workplace technologies can provide? Managers should keep their employees’ best interests in mind when adopting and implementing new technology. Among these best interests — and one of the trust-building management priorities Zak advocates — is employee autonomy. In fact, both workers and business leaders identified accelerating technological change and expectations around flexible, autonomous work as two of the new developments most urgently affecting their organizations, according to the 2019 “Future Positive” report from Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group.

It is possible to maintain trust with your employees and also encourage them to adopt new technologies (provided they aren’t apps that record your workers’ every keystroke). Here are three trust-based approaches to consider when implementing new workplace tech:

  1. Lead with empathy.
    When introducing a new application, put yourself in your employees’ shoes. How will this tech improve their ability to do their work? For example, consider how an artificial intelligence (AI) program like Mediafly can take some of the tedious work away from your overburdened sales representatives, and communicate that value to them. “Your sales team is under tremendous pressure to perform. Most of your salespeople just want to survive the pipeline review,” notes Tracey Wik, president of sales talent management practice at the sales consulting firm GrowthPlay. “Remember to use empathy when throwing new tech at them in order to avoid wasting money and causing friction.”
  2. Use tech to your team’s advantage.
    Thankfully, not all tech has to be designed for performance measurement and productivity pushing. You can actually use tech to enrich the employee experience. LVMH Fashion Group, part of a French luxury products group, leveraged user experience design to create employee journey maps, and the insights eventually led to a job shadowing initiative for its Céline brand’s workers. Ongoing education is another way to use tech to enrich the employee experience, as L’Oréal did by teaching its employees digital skills such as search engine optimization, digital analytics, and digital media allocation. When aimed at consistently upskilling workers, the mastery of new tech becomes another rung on the ladder of advancement.
  3. Remain open to feedback.
    Employees who take ownership of their work will have their own ideas about how to use new tech — and that’s a good thing. Your employees should be able to give you feedback when tech isn’t a good fit. Listening to the people who use a technology every day will help managers determine its strengths and weaknesses and ultimately determine what tech should and shouldn’t be used. After all, managers who don’t take heed of feedback will just make their employees want to work somewhere else. G2’s 2019 “State of Software Happiness Report” found that 62% of employees felt held back professionally because of a software mismatch at work, and about a quarter of employees had even considered leaving their job because of the software they had to use.

New technology transforms every field of business that it comes into contact with, creating new best practices and leaving outdated systems by the wayside. This presents opportunities and hazards for leaders hoping to incorporate it into the workplaces they oversee. When it comes time to update your company’s workflow with advanced tools, it’s best to do so with restraint, consideration, and a willingness to adjust. The decision to prioritize trust over data will lead to better performance and a more positive workplace.

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Rhett Power
Rhett Power is responsible for helping corporate leadership take the actions needed to drive impact and courage in their teams that will improve organizational performance. He is the author of The Entrepreneur’s Book of Actions: Essential Daily Exercises and Habits for Becoming Wealthier, Smarter, and More Successful (McGraw-Hill Education) and co-founder of Wild Creations, an award-winning start-up toy company. After a successful exit from the toy company, Rhett was named the best Small Business Coach in the United States. In 2019 he joined the prestigious Marshall Goldsmith's 100 Coaches and was named the #1 Thought Leader on Entrepreneurship by Thinkers360. He is a Fellow at The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. He travels the globe speaking about entrepreneurship and management alongside the likes of former Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and AOL Founder Steve Case. Rhett Power is an acclaimed author, leader, entrepreneur and an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.