Published: Sept. 26, 2023

By Joe Arney

“Remote work didn’t allow people to build as much trust or be as innovative.”

Is that a pre-pandemic manager arguing that remote work was a pipe dream? A “new normal” leader urging her team back to the office?

Actually, it’s a recording of Zoom CEO Eric Yuan that was leaked to the press last month, following his announcement that he wanted his employees back in the office.

The flexibility white-collar workers enjoyed during the pandemic has slowly eroded as more managers expect employees back onsite. But experts at CU Boulder say the concerns Yuan and other business leaders have voiced don’t fully account for how trust is built—or how quickly we’ve adapted to communicating virtually.

Headshot of Tim Kuhn“I’m saying this as someone who wants to be together with people, but we need to recognize that in-person work doesn’t always work for everybody,” said Timothy Kuhn, professor and chair of the communication department at the College of Media, Communication and Information. “And more than that, it might not be necessary for our organizations.”

Kuhn studies the role of authority in shaping organizations’ decisions and direction. The pandemic was an especially ripe time to be asking questions about how knowledge and value emerge through communication practices in large organizations. 

One of Yuan’s arguments for returning to in-person operations is that employees struggle to build trust virtually, and shy away from uncomfortable, sometimes heated conversations that can drive innovation. Kuhn said that might oversimplify the matter. 

A case for remote work

“As the Zoom CEO mentions, trust is built, not just through familiarity and camaraderie, but through those difficult conversations that he says get stripped out in remote settings,” he said. “But virtual work can be more hospitable and accessible to people with social anxiety or who are neurodivergent. And in some difficult conversations I’ve been in, removing bodies can actually be beneficial” since it may lessen the amount of anxiety someone feels. 

“People have recognized we can build efficiencies in by using Zoom for some things … but what we have to do then is borrow from some of that to build in more in-person time.”
    Matthew Koschmann, associate professor, communication

Matthew Koschmann, an associate professor and an expert in organizational communication who also is editor in chief of Management Communication Quarterly, explores topics like technology and group communication in a course he teaches in CMCI’s master’s program in organizational leadership. 

The story he keeps seeing on message boards and in assignments is one about unique approaches to doing business virtually, whether it’s a student in a big corporation, education, government, sports or nonprofits. It’s clear we have a long way to go—“We are far from any sort of emerging consensus on what virtual work and virtual meetings can and should be,” he said—but we’ve come a long way, as well. 

Koschmann recalled the early days of the pandemic, when hastily scheduled Zoom meetings often started early, with participants making small talk in order to meet new people, or escape the isolation of lockdowns. That’s ended as we’ve grown more used to the technology. 

“So you lose a lot of that tactile, close-proximity stuff that happens when you’re in the room with people,” he said. “There’s a lot of literature about the significance of the meeting after the meeting—even before or during the meeting. You don’t get a lot of that, if any, on Zoom.”

That doesn’t mean virtual meetings don’t have their place, but it means treating Zoom as a tool for connecting with people, instead of a replacement for all conversations. 

Borrowing from efficiencies 

Headshot of Matt Koschmann“People have recognized we can build efficiencies in by using Zoom for some things that maybe were a bigger deal to do in person,” he said. “That’s fine, but what we have to do then is borrow from some of that to build in more in-person time,” for in-person retreats or other face-to-face time with teammates. 

In fact, Kuhn said, virtual work might become more valuable as the ways teams operate change. Increasingly, organizations employ ad hoc teams that are intensely collaborative for a single project or objective, then disband. These teams, he said, need to establish “swift trust” to operate effectively in short-term, high-pressure settings. 

“In these settings, I need capacity to quickly demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about, and for you to believe I’m going to complete my tasks on time,” he said. “That kind of trust can be built just as well on Zoom as in sitting in cubicles next to each other.” 

Ultimately, Kuhn said, complex issues around trust formation are far larger than the medium by which we communicate. 

“Trust is earned, not simply given. And face-to-face settings can do just as much, if not more, to threaten trust as virtual environments,” he said. “So the idea that face-to-face is somehow a salve for all our problems is concerning.” 

Trust buster

Trust doesn’t exist only between individuals—it’s also part of the interplay between employees and the organization they work for. Based on his read of Zoom’s comments, Tim Kuhn said that may be a blind spot for the CEO. 

The order to bring workers back makes it seem like Zoom is disregarding the trust its employees earned during the pandemic. 

“For the CEO to ignore the trust between employee and organization implies that he doesn’t think calling people back to the office is a matter of trust—whereas employees regularly take such pronouncements as evidence that their leaders are out of touch with their needs,” Kuhn said. 

“Because trust between employees and organizations is likely to be a foundation upon which interpersonal trust is built, ignoring it is a potentially serious problem.”