How to form trust in the digital workplace

When people ask me what in my experience is the biggest barrier to innovation in our workplaces, it almost always falls back to workplace fears: Fears about expectations, fears of being seen, fears about making a mistake. Dig a little deeper and we can see that they are all ultimately based on a lack of trust. A lack of trust from management in our workforce and a lack of trust from our workforce in the environment that they work.

To build innovation as a culture, as a way of work, it’s fundamental that we have a workplace built on trust. Innovation flourishes with openness: experiences and insights shared, creative energy surfacing and a diversity of views. Conversely, innovation is killed by a workforce that keeps their heads down and just focuses on the task, staying within the boundaries of the cubicle.

Today, much of our work is done on digital platforms. The digital workplace is no longer just for connecting distant teams, it’s part and parcel of everyday work. In fact, we’re just as likely to have online conversations with people in our building than face-to-face ones. So if our work is more virtual than in-person, it becomes more and more important to focus on the behaviours we exhibit in the digital domain.  Without this, we significantly reduce the ability to connect and converse, solve problems and establish shared understandings, like we do when we catch someone for a real conversation.

So let’s unpack some of the human factors that build trust and see how we can apply them in the digital workplace. Building trust based on hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

Listening and mirroring emotions

Eye contact and responding with similar gestures. These reactions make us relax a little: we’ve got someone’s attention and they seem to like us. But in virtual conversations, who is even listening to us? And even during video conversations, such as Skype and WebEx, it’s nigh on impossible to see the reaction of the audience, and that’s before they’ve dropped out!

In our digital worlds, we need to respond in a way that establishes a similar reaction. A ‘like’ is a good start. It helps to build some semblance of acknowledgement. But to start to form a trusting relationship, a more proactive response is needed. When reacting to a post, add some context: why did you find it useful? How does it connect to what you do? Do you have similar experiences? This opens a positive channel of communications, a thread. Initially, this gives us more confidence to be active in digital conversations and ultimately, building new and productive relationships in the workplace. As a bonus, it also enriches the knowledge in the conversation.

Having things in common

Shared experiences, interests and odd hobbies is a well-proven means of building trust. Immediately it creates empathy with the other person. After all, they are a little bit like me! When we first hold conversations with strangers, we usually go for safe common ground such as the weather. But digging a little deeper usually helps find some common interests like sport, television shows and pets.

What this means is that the often disapproved but tolerated posting of your pet cat doing something almost amusing becomes an important workplace trust building activity. We start to build emotional connections to colleagues. The social network platform starts to become a safe place to talk. This builds us towards an environment where we’re more likely to connect with people who can help us, who need our help or with whom conversations can start to build new and exciting outcomes.

Posting things that mean something to us, or responding to somebody with a similar experience or interest. These are small but very effective ways to build trust and develop a network. Just don’t forget to build business issues and process into your social channels otherwise you’ll be stuck with those bloody cats.

We’re not perfect

The high achiever – always seems to thrive, always perfect. Don’t we just hate them! Jealousy is an innate human trait and for good or bad, it’s just there. It often clouds our judgement under a blanket of emotion. Conversely, we connect more easily with people who aren’t perfect. People who make mistakes, who are fallible. It’s not schadenfreude, it’s just good old fashioned empathy again. It’s hard to have empathy for the person we see (rightly or wrongly) as perfect. After all, that’s just not human, is it?

This one is the hardest of the lot, but thoroughly effective: admitting mistakes, out in the open of our digital ecosystem. In the workplace we’ve always been rewarded for displaying strength, not vulnerability – and so vulnerability is not something we’re comfortable displaying. But innovation is built on mistakes. Human nature is built on mistakes. It’s how we’ve evolved to the top of the food chain – by trying new things, learning from what works and what doesn’t, and adapting our behaviours to suit. So leaders, show strength and admit where you went wrong, What would you do differently next time? You’ll find your teams will trust you much more for it.

Equal favouritism

It’s great to be the head of the pack, surrounded by close colleagues. But what about those who aren’t in the club? If you feel left out, you’re less likely to trust those in the pack. And research by Google on building the perfect team shows that team performance is enhanced when meeting culture allows everyone to have a say, that someone is actually listening to you, rather than just the dominant voices in a room.

In a digital environment, the same applies. Don’t just respond to your mates, showing favouritism to those you know. Break out, and make connections with new people. If someone you don’t know has stuck their neck out to post something, to share what they’ve learned, then respond in kind. Showing that people, especially management, are open to new ideas from those who may not have a seat at the table, is fundamental in bringing the quiet voices out, and offering a vital contribution. How many good ideas have been kept in the locker because they were never shared in the first place?

A smile

Finally, let’s finish with the simplest, most effective way to build trust with someone you don’t know. A smile. It opens us up, suddenly changing the dynamic of an interaction. But how do we convey a smile in a digital world?

It’s actually easy: have a warm smile in your company profile picture. According to research from New York University, people with a positive profile picture on professional networking sites are more likely to appear as trustworthy. And are we really more likely to start a provocative conversation thread with someone with a terrifying face? So put the pout face away and give a good cheesy grin.


Trust is one of the most valuable commodities in today’s digital workplaces. As we’re rolling out new tools and changing the rules of how we interact, it’s vital that we change how we help our workforce. Focus on them as people. Bringing in to play some of the measures above will gain their trust. It will increase adoption. It will increase productivity as our digital conversations become more mature and, ultimately, justify the high business value we place on them.