Is the digital workplace eroding the biology of trust?

In this blog, employee and customer experience researcher Rick Harris explores some of the attractions and challenges of the digital workplace. In particular, he suggests solutions for how to embrace digital efficiency without losing the personal connection of trust across employees, customers and brand communication.


A successful business needs profitable growth, and in a competitive market, that requires high productivity. In short, if your rivals are more productive than you, their cost base vs. unit sold will be lower and their market share will grow faster. And since the digital revolution, countless aspects of business have been seeking out that productivity improvement by going online, from staff training, to cloud-based software, to flexible working. And many more.

So much for the economic theory. Going Digital = More Productive, right? Well, perhaps not. 

There is another hallmark of high-performing organizations – trust.

“Employees in high-trust companies are more productive, are more satisfied with their jobs, put in greater discretionary effort, are less likely to search for new jobs, and even are healthier than those working in low-trust companies.” So says Paul Zak, Founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University.

Zak’s research also finds that businesses that build trust among their customers are rewarded with greater loyalty and higher sales. And negotiators who build trust with each other are more likely to find value-creating deals.

The cornerstone of Zak’s research findings lies in the biology of trust – how our brains allow us to believe in and collaborate with people outside of our immediate social group.

Oxytocin  is a  hormone  that acts primarily as a neurotransmitter in the brain.

Oxytocin is a hormone that acts primarily as a neurotransmitter in the brain.

In particular, trust is built up by the release of Oxytocin, a neurochemical in the brain which enhances empathy with others and, by modulating dopamine, reduces the anxiety we naturally have when around other people. These chemicals motivate us to cooperate with and help each other.

However, these biological factors have developed across thousands of years, where interaction amongst humans took place in face-to-face environments. Today, online interactions in the business world are becoming more and more common. Firms may hire contractors online on the other side of the world, to take advantage of greater choice and lower costs, despite never having met them, or perhaps even seen their face. 

Add to this the rising risk of cybercrime – in 2018, as many as 63 per cent of small businesses (SMEs) in the UK reported being a victim of some form of cybercrime, up from 47 per cent the year before.

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In larger firms, a recent Government report found that only 16 per cent of Boards at FTSE 350 companies have a comprehensive understanding of the loss and disruption of cybercrime.

So, given the added uncertainty and lack of know-how about security in a digital world, trust as a construct is logically even more important in Internet environments than in a traditional face-to-face context in establishing interaction and cooperation.

The ‘solution’ for larger businesses seems to be to install greater due diligence and procedure. By requiring suppliers to have their own written policies for digital security, ethics and disaster recovery, companies believe they can simply hardwire trust by contractual obligation. Yet, such documentation is no guarantee of day-to-day implementation. Being able to sue your suppliers in the event of breach of contract may not win many thanks from your customers, whose personal data or purchased products/services have been compromised.

Towards a solution for maintaining digital trust

In Accenture’s Trust in a Digital Age report (2017), they advise firms to turn this challenge into a competitive advantage. It includes:

  • assigning the role of a Chief Trust Officer to a senior leader in order to provide strategic direction and oversight across the firm.

  • being explicit in building customer relationships around the roleof trust and transparency for digital activity, rather than simply IT protocol compliance. In particular, making it personal, by highlighting the value for customers how a trustworthy digital strategy enhances their own customer experience

  • making ‘digital trust’ a collaboration across divisions, departments and groups – a team activity both within the company and selected partners externally that share your commitment to digital trust

 Taken together, Accenture’s view is that the benefits of a digital workplace require a human connection to be maintained alongside it. This makes sense to me and seems to align well with customer experience needs too. In Gartner’s Be Trustworthy in Every Customer Digital Interaction to Drive Business Results report (2018), it details ten ‘attributes of trust’ for digitally-delivered customer experiences:

  1. Accurate – cite sources, pay attention to detail

  2. Reliable – always available, provides and adheres to customer satisfaction policies

  3. Intuitive – easy and streamlined access through a logical process

  4. Responsive – including fast-acting communications, status updates and FAQs

  5. Cognizant – understands and respects customers, anticipates their needs

  6. Humanized - demonstrates traits like helpfulness, shared interest, dialogue, social

  7. Customer Value – demonstrates aspects such as efficiency and relevance

  8. Empathetic – shows content which is appropriate, not overly complex with jargon

  9. Personalised – adds individually useful content which aligns with their needs

  10. Expert – offers subject matter expertise, relevant to the task at hand

It is notable how many of these trust attributes are built around how things ‘feel’ and are made evident, rather than purely putting content or channels in place.

Taken together, these attributes take us back to Zak’s biology of trust, and perhaps form an ‘antidote’ for its erosion in the digital workplace.