Instructions not included: A guide to trust and conflict when working from home

Why is it so hard to work with people?
Theoretically, it should be easier to work with other people. Imagine, other people are doing some of the work so you don’t have to do it all yourself. But working with others involves navigating the spaces between you and this is always challenging, especially when you are doing it remotely.

Team trust is built organically in person. People see each other every day in the office, have repeated positive interactions over time, and have the lived experience of having each other’s backs when things are tough. When working from home, trust needs to be built more intentionally.

Trust is key when working from home.
Making games is deeply collaborative work. When a team doesn’t have trust, the work takes longer, is arduous and draining, requires more meetings, and the results are of poorer quality.

When working from home, trust can erode silently. People can avoid each other more easily and brush off resentments until conflict builds up to the point of explosion. The symptoms of eroding trust are uncomfortable meetings, misunderstandings, work taking longer, and steadily increasing friction over tiny issues.

8 tips on building trust with others

  1. Build social credit. Trust doesn’t appear magically. Social credit needs to be built over time. Start with a small commitment, then if it works well, agree to bigger commitments over time.
  2. Set and communicate expectations. It’s important to set and communicate expectations. It’s a little awkward at first, but clear expectations are core to trust. Talk about what each person wants to get out of the collaboration, and what they expect. Revisit and refresh expectations along the way because they tend to shift.
  3. Be reliable. Trust develops through demonstration. Small actions add up. Do the things you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do them. This includes meeting commitments on time, responding at a reasonable rate, and communicating as soon as you realize you can’t meet a commitment.
  4. Cultivate sincere curiosity about others. Ask questions and make space for people to express themselves. Trust requires openness, and people need to feel safe to open up. If people feel safe, they will ask for what they need.
  5. Be generous in your judgements. When people do start sharing, try to be generous in your interpretation of their words and actions. People often communicate things poorly. If you assume the best from others they will sense it and will trust you in return. Note: This isn’t always possible and obviously gets more complex when people are racialized and dealing with structural racism.
  6. You can ask people how they like to communicate. It’s ok if things get a little awkward sometimes. Social norms are collaboratively built and not necessarily known in advance or communicated. Social norms also tend to follow patterns of power that reinforce racism, sexism, and ableism. Make space for people to tell you when their world or minds work differently than yours by being curious and open.
  7. Make time to get together. A core ingredient of trust is spending time together. If possible, arrange occasional in-person meetups. If you are in a pandemic, make time to get together as intimately as possible.
  8. It’s not enough to just play games or do escape rooms together. Real trust is shaped by repeat interactions and strengthened in meaningful situations where we discover someone has our best interests at heart.

3 surprising facts about trust

  1. Conflict can help build trust. Figuring out how to solve conflict together is a necessary part of being a team. Don’t run from conflict or negative feedback. Conflict is a major part of group cohesion and trust. As scary as it is, try to find gentle ways to bring issues out into the open and hear what people are saying to you.
  2. Saying no to people can help them to trust you. Be flexible when you can, but be clear and firm in your boundaries. If you find yourself unable to say no to people, it’s worth exploring why. Saying yes to everyone all the time is can be a trauma response and can be worked on.
  3. Sharing fears and challenges can help build trust. It’s hard to trust someone who never has any self-doubt and never has any problems. Vulnerability fosters trust. Try not to info-dump your problems on people by ranting at them for an hour, but also don’t hide them. Talk openly and constructively about the challenges you are facing.

4 tips on building trust when you are the boss

  1. Schedule one-on-ones. One-on-one meetings between managers and employees are underused by indies. The primary determiner of productivity is work satisfaction. The primary factor that determines a person’s work satisfaction is their relationship with their supervisor. One-on-ones are crucial to building a comfortable and supportive environment. And they allow people to make minor complaints in a safe and supportive environment.
  2. Compensate people fairly. Don’t cut corners or try to squeeze value out of people. Of course, this is complicated by how much budget you have to spread around. But if people feel they are unfairly compensated, they will lose trust. And when working from home, any loss of trust is accelerated.
  3. Recognize the power dynamic between bosses and employees. Work at recalibrating the collective nervous system of work trauma that we have built up over the past. Hierarchical structures are socially complicated, and this structure shapes each relationship.
  4. Assign occasional stretch tasks to help people grow. Work with people to set occasional tasks that are slightly outside their comfort zone, where they are allowed to fail. Without those tasks, people will stagnate. Assigning stretch tasks and providing support reminds people that you trust them to stretch and grow.

What to do when conflict is unavoidable

  1. Don’t wing it. Conflict is unavoidable. Every team will encounter conflict eventually. Have concrete policies for navigating conflict and make sure people know about them. You don’t need a huge HR bible, start small and put together a simple document describing how you handle conflict.
  2. Trust your gut and take action. If you are getting bad feelings and are starting to worry, don’t minimize it, avoid it, or push back in passive-aggressive ways. Reach out to the person immediately and start a dialogue.
  3. Process and manage your own emotions first. If you are in a headspace where you can’t listen to the other person you aren’t going to resolve anything.
  4. Choose a good forum for managing the conflict. There is evidence that written communication is the worst for resolving conflict. A voice call helps both parties get context, tone, and nuanced subtext.
  5. Listen with curiosity and care. Start by asking questions, rather than making assumptions or accusations. Make a safe space for people to express their grievances. Try to understand their point of view before talking about your own.
  6. Be specific and concrete. Thoughtful use of techniques like nonviolent communication may help with communicating issues so they don’t feel like an attack. For example, “When A happens, I feel B because I need C. Would you be willing to do X?”
  7. Focus on finding a solution. Find and continuously bring the common goal to the forefront.
  8. Consider finding a third-party mediator. Most conflicts aren’t groundbreaking, some version of them has existed as long as there have been people working together. It can help to hire a specialist.
  9. Know when to walk away. Never compromise on your core values. If your values are clear and defined, it’s easier to defend them more readily. If a situation is becoming abusive or toxic, it’s time to accept sunk costs, settle outstanding bills, and part ways.

Created by Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan from GAIN and funded by Ontario Creates and the CMF, Isolation Nation tackles the tough pandemic-related problems like motivation and communication, as well as continuing challenges like market discoverability and work-life balance.

Download the full free 32 page resource here, or read another excerpt “What did you say to me? Communicating with others online“.