Employee trust in the time of COVID

New research shows most workers don’t trust companies to keep them safe

The late management scholar Warren Bennis defined trust as “the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.” So it’s concerning that amid a global pandemic, 60% of employees believe their company will prioritize business continuity over workplace safety, according to a recent global survey sponsored by ServiceNow, the publisher of Workflow. Even more concerning: 44% of executives agree.

Our research partner Wakefield surveyed 8,100 employees and 900 executives in 11 countries around the world. Trust levels varied by industry, with workers in healthcare (68%) and manufacturing (64%) reporting the highest levels of skepticism about their employer’s willingness to put safety first. Skepticism was lower, but still worryingly high, among workers in the public sector (55%), telecom (51%), and financial services (43%).

More than half of employees in every region said their employer would prioritize company profits over their safety. New Zealand workers (87%) were most likely to agree with this statement, versus 76% of Indian employees, 56% of U.S. workers, and 52% of employees in the Netherlands.

Bottom-line human needs

The psychologist Abraham Maslow ranked security and safety as the second-most basic human needs, right after physiological needs like food, water, warmth, and rest. If workers don’t trust their employer to keep them safe at work, they are less likely to stick around, let alone invest discretionary effort in the company’s success. In this regard, it’s significant that 47% of all employees in our survey said they would leave a company that didn’t allow them to work remotely post-COVID.

I’ve been working from home since the middle of March, along with all 12,000 of my ServiceNow colleagues. I miss seeing them in person, and it can be tedious to spend the working day on an endless series of Zoom calls. Yet I’m grateful to have a job that allows me to support my family without commuting or putting my health at risk.

ServiceNow’s internal polling shows that 94% of employees believe the company will respect their decision about where to work throughout the pandemic. Millions of workers around the world are less sanguine, either because their occupation requires them to be in a physical workplace, or because their employer is less flexible about remote work.

Leaning into digital workflows

With varying levels of enthusiasm and efficiency, organizations worldwide shifted to remote work under the pressures of COVID. Generally speaking, companies with more robust digital workflows have fared better in this new dispensation, in part because they are less dependent on physical interactions to get work done.

Research by my colleague Chris Dowse shows that digitally mature companies have met the COVID challenge more successfully than digital laggards. Dowse and his team examined anonymized operational data from several thousand companies that manage digital workflows on the Now Platform and agreed to have their data used for research. They defined digital maturity using three main criteria: user reach as a percentage of the total employee base, business workload volumes per user, and automation maturity.

They used these three metrics to create a composite digitization score called the Digital Transformation Index (DTI). Between January and April 2020, digital leaders and laggards both saw incident volumes rise across employee, customer, and IT workflows. However, high-DTI customers reduced their average issue resolution time by 20%. By contrast, low-DTI customers experienced a 38% increase in resolution times.

The difference a pandemic makes is that companies now have little choice but to embrace digital workflows.

Based on their analysis of public financial data from ServiceNow customers, Dowse’s team also found that high-DTI companies outperform low-DTI peers on a range of financial metrics, including revenue growth, operating margin and cost savings. Across all industries, for example, digital leaders have a 6% advantage over laggards in SG&A (sales, general, and administrative expenses) as a percentage of revenue, a common metric used to gauge the financial impact of digital transformation.

A step toward digital maturity

It might seem self-serving for ServiceNow to define digital maturity by the intensity with which customers use its digital workflow products. At the same time, ServiceNow’s customer base has grown to 6,200 companies worldwide, including 80% of the Fortune 500. The Now Platform processes more than a billion operational incidents and cases per year, impacting several million employees and customers. That makes it a meaningful proxy for the impact of digital workflows on business performance in the global economy.

Digital maturity was already a strategic differentiator before COVID. The difference a pandemic makes is that companies now have little choice but to embrace digital workflows, not least because they are a prerequisite of the flexible work arrangements that employees increasingly demand.

Globally, 60% of surveyed employees say they prefer to maintain these new ways of working. On the other hand, 47% of executives say their priority is returning to how they worked before COVID-19. Those executives should think again. Organizations run on trust, and a majority of workers already believe their employers are more focused on profits than on safety. Digital transformation can’t create trust on its own, but it can help organizations put people first without sacrificing performance.