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Management news

Balancing trust and control of virtual workers

20 Nov 2013 11:41
Advances in information and communication technology have allowed work to become more dispersed and remote creating at times a group of knowledge workers who are removed from the direct sphere of influence of management and co-workers.

© Marek -
This has created a new dilemma for managers, namely how to balance trust and control of virtual knowledge workers regarding work performance. Traditional performance management and measures, like many of the other organisational management tools, have not been sufficiently adapted to reflect this new way of work.

A study conducted by Karen Luyt from the University of Pretoria and presented at the 30th International Pan Pacific Business Conference hosted by the University of Johannesburg earlier this year, showed that geographic distance does not necessarily erode trust. Instead, the actions of managers and individuals in their dyadic relationship can erode trust.

Willingness to take risk

The study emphasised the importance of managers showing a willingness to take a risk and to trust individuals to perform. Knowledge work has traditionally been difficult to measure and managers may feel that they are losing control over their resources in these virtual distance work settings, and try to bring in more controls and external monitoring. Luyt says this gives them a subjective interpretation of the virtual performance in juxtaposition to actual performance, which includes deliverables directly relating to the goals of the task at hand.

Gavin Olivier, partner at LRMG, a local performance agency, agrees that trust is really pivotal in the manager/worker relationship and supports the research findings that show that micro-managing virtual knowledge workers is not feasible or ideal.

"The reality is that it takes more effort from the manager to build and keep these relationships intact so it is preferable if an employee has initially worked within a team in the organisation. The key is to stay connected through regular interaction and to ensure performance feedback is open and honest. Trust is essential to the authenticity of the relationship and employees need to feel trusted to have the flexibility to work on a flexible status. Equally the manager needs to ensure he or she remains available and open to all communication," he says.

Feedback is important

He notes the importance of feedback saying transparency becomes key with workers constantly needing to inform and copy managers on discussions and emails to reinforce the trust relationship.

Low trust situations which lead to micro-management are normally more prevalent where the individual is immature or junior in the position, or where the individual did not perform to expectations.

"Even in situations where a lot of micro-management occurs, there should still be some trust. On the other hand, even if there is full trust, the manager still needs to stay involved with the individual to ensure 'belongingness' of the individual in the team and ultimately the organisation. It is preferable that there should always be more trust than control," says Luyt.

"If the employee is given the freedom to deliver autonomously, the manager is able to build trust through good relationships and staying involved. The individuals in turn are transparent about their actions and deliver on time. Companies that can achieve this required balance between trust and control will enjoy the benefits of virtual distance work settings," she concludes.
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