Cultivating Trust in the Pandemic for a Digital Future

Published 16 July 2020

In the previous article in this series, we shared how organisations can grow their digital trust advantage through strengthening data privacy and security, personalising customer experiences and creating a strong brand purpose and perception. However, trust also needs to be built within organisations if they want to lead the charge in the new decade.

As we are slowly coming out from a worldwide shut down due to COVID-19, millions of workers have been impacted one way or another. The shutdown places immense pressure across all sectors and demographics. Many people have lost their primary source of income and are scrambling to find new employment. Countless businesses are also struggling to adapt. In this turbulent time, the tendency is for companies to focus on short-term profits and losses – but to get through the pandemic and thrive post-pandemic, leaders need to keep the long-term view in mind.

Right now, creating and maintaining trust within organisations is crucial. People need to know they can trust that their best interests are the heart of company decisions. At the same time, the need for digital transformation has never been more intense. Suddenly, the ability to video conference, work from home and learn online are necessary; systems have to become more automated, even autonomous, to reduce transmission risks. Companies, therefore, are going to need to build two kinds of trust in the organisation – human and digital.

Digital transformations are only successful when there is equal emphasis on being human-centred in an organisation – digital trust and human trust need to support each other in symbiosis. In this article, however, we will be focusing mostly on digital trust and how to develop effective human-technology partnerships[1] so that companies can come out stronger from the crisis by Empowering the Workforce, Designing the Future, and Governing with Transparency.

Empowering the Workforce

As we adapt to the new normal, your workers may still experience deep dissonance, confusion and psychological insecurity. At the same time, there is a great need to adjust quickly – be it through digitalisation, a new business model or pivots of business priorities.Trust will be essential within the organisation for it to ride out this crisis and thrive sustainably.

Compared with low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity and 40% less burnout[2]. In this disruptive time, how can your organisation continue to build trust with employees and enable them to succeed through this time?

Take a human-centred approach to the impacts of crisis and change. Leaders are responsible to make hard choices to ensure their businesses stay afloat – but that does not necessarily mean doing so at the expense of your employees. Big changes like digital transformations and crises like COVID-19 are bound to mean many difficult decisions regarding business priorities, business models and the workforce. However, remembering to communicate openly and honestly with your team, even if you are considering layoffs is essential. Open the floor to work with them to consider options–even non-obvious ones. For example, instead of letting people go, another solution could be implementing a 4-day work week or unpaid leave. If discussing this with employees is difficult, consider being radically transparent about how layoff decisions are being made. For example, take Airbnb CEO and Co-founder Brian Chesky’s letter to Airbnb employees where he clearly and compassionately writes about how the company came to the decision of reducing their workforce by 25% and how they would continue to support employees who have to leave the company. Those who deal with crisis and change with clarity and kindness will strengthen their trust with their employees and come out stronger than before.

Lead trust in data from the top. Despite all the talk about big data, many leaders still mistrust it–valuing the wisdom of years of experience over data insights. IBM found that trust in data to formulate decisions doesn’t appear to be a consequence of age, or even C-suite role either. Often, this is because their data is of poor quantity and quality. Data is also thought of as too time-consuming. But these do not paint an accurate picture of what data can actually do.

If you want your organisation to transform, your senior leaders need to be champions of data. The best way to draw them in? Inspire them with high-value cases where predictive data models help make futuristic business decisions. Show them what has never been possible or tried before. In other words, help your colleaguessee what they’re missing by dismissing data.

Empower and equip your workforce with a digital and data-first mindset. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, organisations were already embarking on digital and data-ed transformations. Now with a decentralised workforce, there is a greater need to empower every worker to make data-based decisions and work comfortably in remote teams. This may be a good time to invest in upskilling your workers and to invest in new digital and data analysis tools.

“We want all our great minds tapping into data because each one will look at things differently, We’re aiming for a ‘learn-it’ mindset, rather than a ‘know-it-all’ mindset. We’re trying to unlock the collective intelligence of our organization by bringing the data, information, and insights together to improve our operations and the working lives of our people.” – Woodside Chief Digital Officer, Shelley Kalms[3]

It is not just about the technical skills, however, it is also about creating a digital culture of trusting and sharing data openly within the organisation. This can start from the C-suite leading by example along with a ground-up initiative. Successful digital transformations only happen alongside culture transformations.

Designing the Future

It is not enough to simply get through this difficult time, companies need to think ahead to the future they want to create. Even though COVID-19 and an economic downturn is on everyone’s minds right now, organisations must prepare for and design the future. How can this crisis humble us and be turned into an opportunity to learn and to create a better way forward?

Companies now have more data about their operations, their employees, their customers and their ecosystems than before. As work patterns and consumer patterns change, making sense of these data streams is key to adapting to current realities and forging a path beyond the crisis.

Create new value by investing in the latest technologies, with AI in the centre. From machine learning to hybrid cloud technology, leading companies use these technologies in concert, with AI at the core of things. These technologies can help your employees to work smarter and better in teams, it can personalise and humanise customer experience and uncover new streams of revenue. It may feel as though now is not the time to be fiddling with something unknown. The current crisis has blown apart the possibilities of the future, which means there is opportunity here to accelerate transformations and design a better path forward. Trying out a new solution could be what helps your company succeed even in the chaos. The objective is not to replace humans but to augment human intelligence and interactions.

Curate and contextualise your data. Gone are the days where simply having lots of data is enough. Instead, organisations must curate data for specific business functions and intelligent workflows. To do so, metadata is required. Metadata reveals relationships between data sets, their histories, and their sources. Without strong metadata, it would be challenging to integrate and retrieve data for analytics and AI. Make sure that there are agreements on what metadata is needed, and how it is categorized and labelled. Improve the quality and accessibility of your data. Data that is clean, current, curated and contextualised [4] means your people can trust in data and the AI models it is part of. However, data cleansing is not a one-off event – eventually, your data will drift and become outdated. How to ensure this doesn’t happen? Your data must be accessible. Hybrid cloud solutions bring private cloud, public cloud and in-office IT together under one system. This will allow for the seamless operation of multiple applications and access to data across platforms, making it easier for data to be kept updated and remain trustworthy.

Governing with Transparency

AI has the potential to offer insights and advice that are less affected by personal bias and self interest. This means it has the capacity to not just build and sustain trust, but also restore trust to the sectors that need it. The more customers and employees trust the advice offered, the more data will be shared with the system, which creates a positive feedback loop. However, this all comes only with strong governance measures in place.

Governance is important in ensuring data is trustworthy and of high quality. It also reveals the cognitive biases that can become embedded into AI models and data – a dangerous thing if overlooked, because it can perpetuate systemic discrimination and inequalities. What does good AI governance look like?

Establish enterprise-wide guidelines on data and AI. Leading organisations are putting ethical guideline into place for how data is used and purposed and to what end. Governments are also turning their attention to such governance—the Singapore government supports research at the Centre for AI and Data Governance, while the EU recently launched its Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI.

Within your organisation, make it a board-level priority to ensure the fair and ethical use of data and AI. Look stringently at eliminating bias from your systems and data models and have strong guidelines surrounding how data is acquired, stored and used.

Make sure your AI models are transparent. Mistakes are bound to happen no matter how smart an AI model or clean a data set is. Furthermore, as mentioned above, human bias easily creeps into AI models. Therefore, it is important that such models and learning systems are fully transparent about their potential for error. They must also be understandable for anyone and not be buried by technical jargon. If AI is not clearly understood, the results it comes up with may not be trusted by team members.

In the end, however, all these technologies are merely tools. At the heart of building trust in your organisation is how human-centred your organisational culture and practices are. Even if your organisation were to give your employees the skills to thrive in the digital world, invest in the latest technologies, put in place careful guidelines for your AI models – none of that matters if your employees are not first treated as a human being in the organisation. People may not always know when they are seen as nothing more than another cog in the wheel, but in a crisis, whether an organisation values its people becomes clear as day.

When organisations treat people as people, first, and follow through with practices that align with that decision, they will excel in creating trust within the company in this digital era, and forge great human-technology partnerships. However, with the intense interconnections of the digital world, trust within an organisation is also not enough. There needs to be trust across platforms and ecosystems. In our next article in this series, we will look at how organisations can navigate the tricky waters of the emerging digital platform economy.

  1. IBM’s Global C-Suite Study
  2. Paul J. Zak, 2017
  3. IBM’s Global C-Suite Study
  4. Ibid.

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