The world we live and work in has become increasingly complex in the past two decades. Rapid advances in technology, together with globalization and fast growth all combined to rewrite the rules of success, failure and organizational design. The result is that in most multinationals we now have very complex matrix reporting structures, a proliferation of geographically dispersed teams, managers who would not be able to complete the work of absent team members, and more stress and pressure than ever before.

In this environment, we have no choice but to rely on others for our success. This is raising the premium on at least three aspects of this new world of work: computers, connections and collaboration. A high tech world is still high touch, and demands high trust.

High Tech

It’s almost impossible to imagine that a little over two decades ago we had no mobile phones, no Internet, no email and no 24-hour TV news channels. In less then one generation we have revolutionised communication and initiated significant change in every aspect of our lives. Initially it seemed that the revolution was simply to speed up everything we had been doing, but increasingly we’re discovering that advances in computing power, processing speed and bandwidth, also allow us to do different things and to do what we do in entirely different ways.

Companies are only just beginning to discover the benefits of this high tech world. Many organisations still fear it, banning Facebook, YouTube and Skype, and limiting access to the digital world during office hours. Some have begun to experiment with using technology to enhance what they do already, including video meetings, in-house instant messaging and document management.

But only a very few are truly stepping into this high tech world and trying to take advantage of issues like “big data” (our ability to harvest, process and utilize hundreds of thousands of data points, and use algorithms and intelligent systems to look for patterns in the data that can influence our decision making), social business (using the concepts underpinning social media to devise entirely new approaches to all aspects and functions of business), BYOD (bring your own device, as companies stop insisting on specific hardware or uniform platforms for staff) or truly mobile, cloud-based, digital communications (that will free people up from needing to be in any specific location).

High Touch

One of the key reasons the high tech world is not being properly embraced is because of the fear that especially senior leaders have about losing control. Most of these leaders grew up in a world where control was imposed by being physically present. “Super-vision” was exactly that: over-sight of people physically present. There is, of course, a negative side to this approach to control and management.

The positive side is that most people need some form of human contact in order to function effectively anyway. In a high tech world, we need to find ways to continue to be high touch.

And this, paradoxically, is what the last few years of computing advances have begun to enable. For example, consider the rapid uptake of social media. Facebook is closing in on one billion users. This is not because Facebook is a brilliant piece of software. Facebook does not exist because some nerdy software programmers got the coding just right. Facebook exists because it is the best tool we’ve ever invented to get people to do what people want to do naturally: to connect. The most successful technology companies these days are successful precisely because they enable connection, belonging and “high touch”.

In the business world, the recent global economic crisis has caused companies to pull back on travel and shift towards more virtual meetings and conference calls. Many people are discovering that these do in fact create a connection, and that technology – properly used – can enable “high touch”. It might not be as good as being in the room with someone, but it’s better than we’ve ever had before.

In addition, we’ve also just recently brought the technology to a point where it is both useful and painless to use. This can probably be most attributed to the Apple iPad. The first iPad was only launched in April 2010 (I wonder how old you thought iPads were?), and has been followed by a host of copycats. These handheld, mobile, smart devices are not just easy to use, they are delightful to use. In April 2012, mobile devices accounted for 10% of all Internet traffic – a doubling from the same time the year before. By 2020, mobile Internet will be by far the dominant form of online usage, with online communication being the now.

And so, possibly, the confluence of rapidly advancing technology and an economic downturn have ushered in a new world of work.

High Trust

In this new world of work outlined above, the most important currency is trust. This is true for anyone trying to sell anything. It is also true for teamwork, management and leadership. And it is absolutely essential for almost any business activity these days. The higher the complexity of a task or function, the more we need to rely on others and to collaborate, and this requires trust. High trust!

Unfortunately it seems that the transparency, immediacy and openness of this new digital age has led to a dramatic decrease in trust. Trust is even more scarce than attention, and that’s saying something these days. For teams to be successful, they therefore need to use a combination of high tech and high touch to develop high trust. This needs to be a conscious and deliberate team focus.

Trust is tricky to define. There are two parts to it: there’s a “feeling” part that indicates trust exists and a “performance” part based on one’s track record that confirms the trust. Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time: it takes a long time to build, and can be shattered in an instant.

There are many practical steps a team or group of people can take to develop trust, but the first and most important of these is to make every effort to see the world through other people’s eyes. Every one sees the world through a series of “lenses” conditioned by their own set of circumstances. These lenses include the viewpoints of different cultures, genders, religions, personalities, generations and learning styles. In a business environment, we can also add the lenses of different regions, functions, job outcomes and seniority.

There are no quick solutions here. Teams need to take the time to identify and become comfortable naming and accepting each other’s lenses. We must each firstly acknowledge our own lenses, and accept that we may have blind spots and biases that influence how we feel and perform (the two aspects of trust). This can be done using profiles. Our team has enjoyed using the Enneagram as a personality profile, Belbin’s model of team functioning and a model of cultural diversity developed by our Asia team member, Professor Nick Barker. You can find insights into these aspects of diversity and difference at our blog.

But, of course, there are many other models that can be used to achieve the same result. However your team does it, this is the starting point: to identify your key lenses and be comfortable owning how these lenses affect you and your reactions.

This allows you to then move to the second step, which is to accept other people’s lenses, or to see the world through other people’s eyes. In our team, we have a simple rule at this stage: we do not question motive. When someone else does something we don’t understand or agree with, we may not (initially) question their motives. We have to assume that we do not understand, but that they had the team’s best interests at heart. We then connect with that person to discover why they did what they did, and, in the words of Steven Covey in his best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” (this is Habit 5 in his list).

The third step is to decide what adjustments need to be made. In some instances, one or other of the parties involved in a disagreement will need to change. Sometimes both parties need to make adjustments. But interestingly, quite often, neither party needs to change. Each one has an aspect of the whole picture, and in a complex world we are often faced with paradoxes that cannot be easily resolved in one-size-fits-all solutions. This is the real value of true diversity – not that we all end up agreeing, but rather that we end up in a position where we can hold different viewpoints in harmonious tension with each other. This is when trust is most in evidence in a team. And most needed too.

Trust emerges over time in a team that is committed to relying on each other, working together to achieve a common purpose, and insistent on dealing honestly, openly and immediately with misunderstandings and concerns.

Working together in a new world of work

In a high tech world, driven by unprecedented computing power, we need to learn how to connect and collaborate more effectively. Our old ways of working, and outdated approaches to teamwork are proving ineffective and counterproductive in this new world. We need to take some time as teams to develop our abilities to “touch” and “trust”.

There are no short cuts available to achieving this, but the benefits when it is done are enormous. Teams will be more effective and more resilient, and will be able to better retain and engage their members. This is everything that businesses and leaders everywhere want. High touch and high trust in a high tech world are the only ways to achieve this, and leaders need to make these a priority.

Dr Graeme Codrington is an international partner of the strategic insights firm, TomorrowToday. He his a researcher, author, presenter and expert on the disruptive forces shaping the world of work. He can be contacted at [email protected]

TomorrowToday Global