Changing (dis)course

Ioana Finichiu

I'm seeing 'trust' discussed a lot these days – I mentioned it myself in a recent post where I talk about the triangle of... well... everything. There's chatter about how trust should be automatically given when someone is hired (perhaps just like handing out an access pass to a building?) I'm also hearing things like “I'm a professional, you should trust me” and variations on this theme.

Something has been bugging me about this discourse. Now that I think about it, we probably do a lot more background checks on a person before we allow them access to a physical space than we do before we allow them access to our emotional and head space. While this may be good fodder for a future post, today I want to talk about how we like throwing the 'trust' notion around when grappling with hard truths – and I genuinely think some issues may be other than 'trust issues'.

Let's take flexible work arrangements as an example – I don't want to overly define the term, I just want us to think about it like this: 1. Can the work only be done in the physical location designated by your employer (typically your office)? and 2. Does it matter at which time of day the work is done?
If the answer is no to either of these questions, how this work is done can be called flexible, right?

It's 2019 and a bunch of us have access to the internet and devices that can remotely connect to our employer's network just as if – gasp – we were to be physically present at the office. Why, then, when the benefits of flexible work arrangements are highly touted, do we struggle to make it a reality for more people? Whenever this topic is brought up I invariably hear about 'trust issues'.

But what if this isn't (just) about trust? I realized currently a lot of people seem to talk about flexible work arrangements in terms of right and privilege. When looking at it in those terms, it's easy to see how quickly things can become confrontational, especially when something is dangled in front of employees as reward or punishment. It's easy to see how (terribly) this plays out for morale, credibility, fairness, transparency. It's easy to get upset, to lash out at “the system”, to feel the injustice and the difference in power and privilege.

To borrow the words of a great friend of mine, this is not helpful. We need to re-frame. Instead of talking about flexible work arrangements as a privilege that can be given or taken away, what if we were to refer to it as a simple choice in how you do our work, a choice you get to make from the moment you get a building access card, a mobile device, and a way to connect remotely, a choice you get to make every day?

And then I stopped dead in my tracks (literally heard a screeching brake in my head). Framing this as a choice in how we do our work means the people responsible for supervising work have to do extra work themselves. It means we ask folks who are already stretched and dealing with a whole other level of organizational slush to add an extra layer of administrative burden. It means we are asking them to create the conditions and to support every person they're responsible for in however they choose to do their work. Yes, they signed up to do this type of job – but are they trained, supported, and prepared to keep the lights on while transforming their environment into an efficiency gold standard while being incredible people leaders? That's asking for... a lot.

As it turns out, some things may not be about trust – they may be about asking others to take on extra work, or a million other things.

I'd like us to start changing our discourse, so we can eventually change our course. It is not helpful to label a new way of working as a privilege, just like it is not helpful to invoke trust issues every time. We are fundamentally shifting our new typical and framing it well means we may need to adjust our focus. We all have a role to play if we want change and sometimes that role starts with changing our self.