A Psychologist’s POV: Building Trust in an Evolving Workplace

July 10, 2020
Author: Mara Zemicael

Dr. Tara Behrend With the COVID-19 pandemic not showing signs of disappearing anytime soon, the current research projects and expertise of Dr. Tara Behrend are especially timely.

As a professor of psychology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and a consultant on technology in the workplace, the industrial and organizational psychologist’s expertise includes performance management, resolving matching issues between job seekers and employers and applying big data to the HR field. She aims to resolve practical concerns with useful recommendations based on data and scientific evidence.

The Offline Office Has Gone Online

For someone who has built a career studying and analyzing how technology continues to shape the modern workplace, this is an interesting time, especially as social distancing measures challenge previous assumptions about remote work, as many in-person processes transition to the virtual workplace.

More people are adjusting to remote work, even while juggling other responsibilities during the workday.

“Old, conventional wisdom suggested remote workers had a harder time getting promoted because they had more difficulty getting their manager to notice them and building trust with their teammates. They struggled with work/life balance because of constant intrusions and interruptions,” Dr. Behrend says. “Now, many people are working remotely, and systems and processes have adapted out of necessity.”

While many managers and company leaders are learning how to maintain productivity levels and build a strong company culture when most employees are working remotely, Dr. Behrend believes the biggest challenge is how to onboard a new employee without any in-person interaction, especially when the other employees have already built trust and relationships face-to-face. “Replicating the human moments that happen in an office environment are at top of mind for a lot of people. On some level, it’s impossible to replicate human moments electronically,” she says.

Though working from home during the pandemic has unique hurdles – many people are managing household duties and taking care of kids as they do their jobs during the workday – Dr. Behrend definitely sees the adoption of remote work as a game changer. She says, “Telework is no longer a privilege. It’s something that anybody can request and be accommodated for. I think the challenge is for managers who have to figure out how to manage the performance of people they don’t see every day.”

She sees this absence of in-person communication as an obstacle for managers who are used to popping in unannounced and seeing employees performing tasks. These managers measure their employees’ contributions based on the number of hours they’re in a seat at the office, but that metric no longer makes sense.

Unintended Consequences of Remote Work

The pandemic has forced employers to accept that most of their workforce, particularly those who only need a laptop and internet, are able to productively work from home. While there will always be managers who are tempted to spy on employees, Dr. Behrend sees office workers to be less at risk, especially those who have some autonomy in their roles.

“The temptation to invade people’s privacy for the sake of measuring their performance really can lead to terrible consequences. I’m thinking less of office managers or office workers here and other kinds of workers, like delivery drivers and warehouse workers. These people who already don’t have much power, and now that power is being taken away in a new, invasive way.”


One of Dr. Behrend’s areas of research is digital tracking and surveillance in the workplace. This may be monitoring what employees do online or on the phone, tracking their movement and times with sensors, or using security cameras to record people as they work. The negative effect when employees don’t have buy-in into this surveillance is that they feel as if they’re not trusted. Employees stop putting in extra effort and feeling invested in the company. Dr. Behrend adds, “Once that bond is broken, it’s almost impossible to put back together.”

Related: Leadership in a Time of Crisis

To prevent these problems, Dr. Behrend believes that leaders must have the tools to do their jobs well and that they must work together with the employees who do the work to create performance metrics.

She says that most managers are doing the best they can, but they may need additional training, resources and support from their supervisors to improve at their roles. She continues, “Leadership is difficult. It’s a set of unique skills that can be developed, yet not all people have a chance to develop these skills.”

As managers modify their evaluation process for remote employees, they must change their mindset. “Instead of measuring performance by looking at the process, you have to focus on the outcome,” Dr. Behrend points out. For some roles, instead of focusing on how long the job took them to perform, review the quality of their work and if they met their deadlines. This works well for many in office positions or task-oriented roles. However, employees whose tasks are time-sensitive, such as a delivery driver, managers must set performance metrics that also take in account the employee’s working conditions and restrictions. Giving these employees input into the process usually results in more engagement and improved performance.

The Workplace Will Adapt to Change

Though technology – including virtual – is not new, more organizations have been forced to accept and adapt to it. Social distancing measures have required more companies to rely on virtual interviewing of job seekers and employees working from home. As more employees join companies that are fully remote, Dr. Behrend thinks more employers will use virtual reality or augmented reality to train new hires or job skills. She also recommends that managers and leaders remember that employees need to feel invested in the organization to do well in their roles. “Buy-in from employees is needed. It has everything to do with how something is framed and how it is communicated to people.”

Tara Behrend, PhD is a member of ThinkWhy’s Executive Advisory Board and Associate Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her research group, the Workplaces and Virtual Environments (WAVE) lab, focuses on understanding and resolving barriers to computer-mediated work effectiveness, especially in the areas of training, recruitment, and selection. She is a Fellow of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and currently serving on its Executive Board.