Trust is the Foundational Imperative of 2021: Global Research by The Workforce Institute at UKG Explores Why Trust is Hard to Find at Work

December 15, 2020, LOWELL, Mass., and WESTON, Fla.

As the world prepares to close the book on the unprecedented events of 2020 and looks ahead to 2021 with renewed hope and optimism, global research from The Workforce Institute at UKG explores the importance of elevating trust to a foundational imperative to create high-performing workplace cultures that better serve customers and their communities.

Trust in the Modern Workplace” is based on a global survey of nearly 4,000 employees and business leaders in 11 countries1. Commissioned by The Workforce Institute at UKG and conducted by Workplace Intelligence, the report examines the current state of trust—especially between employees and leaders—and the opportunities organizations can create by making trust a foundational element of their employee experience.

Rethinking the Trust Paradigm: Trust Should Be Given, Not Earned
According to the research, most employees and business leaders—63%—think that trust at work must be earned. Among C-level leaders, nearly three-quarters (72%) believe that it is up to the employee to earn trust. Only one-third (37%) of employees and business leaders feel trust should be presumed.

“Trust must constantly be nurtured, and when the organization’s default position is to presume trust and good intentions, they can reimagine outdated processes and policies to focus on driving performance through a truly modern employee experience,” said Dr. Chris Mullen, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, executive director, The Workforce Institute at UKG. “Trust makes it safe to pursue new innovations and challenge the status quo. It’s a critical element to deliver meaningful and connected experiences.”

The belief that trust must be earned is most prevalent in India (90%), the U.S. (68%), the U.K. (67%), Australia and New Zealand (64%), Canada (64%), and France (64%). Comparatively, employees and business leaders in Mexico (63%) are more likely to presume trust starting day one than any other country in the world.

Times of Crisis are Opportunities to Build Trust
More than half of employees and business leaders (52%) say trust is higher at their organization today than it was before the pandemic. Workplace trust improved most in India (67%), Mexico (56%), the U.S. (53%), the U.K. (52%), and Australia and New Zealand (50%).

COVID-19 did force organizations to rethink entire operating models practically overnight, including the proliferation of remote work. While 55% think it is easier to trust colleagues in a physical workplace versus those working virtually, nearly two-thirds (61%) say the pandemic has positively reshaped perceptions about flexible and remote work arrangements.

“Work-from-anywhere, at any time, is here to stay, but that does not mean the traditional physical workplace is dead—especially with tens of millions of frontline workers who must be present to do their jobs,” said Dan Schawbel, managing partner, Workplace Intelligence. “Organizations will need to carefully consider how to foster relationships between location-based and remote employees to create a deliberate hybrid model that helps everyone reach their full performance potential—and trust is foundational to making it work.”

Trust Drives Employee Engagement, Business Performance
When employees feel like trust is lacking from their workplace relationships—whether with coworkers, their manager, or in the processes that define their daily work—it has many negative consequences.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of employees say trust has a direct impact on their sense of belonging at work, including 4 out of 5 employees in India (79%) and two-thirds of employees in the U.S. (68%), Canada (65%), and Mexico (63%).

  • Employees who do not feel trusted are less productive: Two-thirds (68%) say that the perception of low trust hurts their daily effort.
  • More than half (58%) of employees say a lack of trust affects their career choices, including nearly a quarter (24%) who left a company because they did not feel trusted.
  • Half of all employees surveyed globally (55%) feel a lack of trust impacts their mental health.
  • Poor trust even hurts talent pools: One in 5 employees (22%) actively did not refer a friend, family member, or former colleague to an open role because they did not trust their company.

Trust is a Two-way Street
While the research shows it’s hard for organizations to presume trust in their employees, many employees are similarly hesitant to trust their employer. In fact, 38% do not trust their organization to put employee interests ahead of profits.

Where can organizations optimize processes or provide more transparency to improve trust?

  • Equity: 32% do not trust equal standards for pay and promotions.
  • Diversity: 29% do not trust that their employer will create a diverse and inclusive workplace.
  • Scheduling: 27% do not trust they will be scheduled fairly.
  • Safety: 25% do not trust their employer will create a safe workplace.
  • Payroll: 24% do not trust they will be paid accurately each pay period.

Signs Workplace Trust is Growing 
A quarter of employees globally (25%) say they’re trusted to swap shifts with another employee without manager approval and a third (33%) are trusted to select their time off without manager approval.

“Trust can take years to develop, yet it will quickly wither if it’s not a genuine priority,” said Dr. Mullen. “The organizations that pay specific attention to trust—by presuming trust, by modeling trust, and by engraining trust in their processes and policies—will have a vital advantage in the global competition to recruit and retain top talent.”

Supporting Resources

About The Workforce Institute at UKG

The Workforce Institute at UKG provides research and education on critical workplace issues facing organizations worldwide. By bringing together a global consortium of HR and workforce management thought leaders, the think tank is uniquely positioned to empower organizations with practical ideas for optimizing the 21st century workplace while also providing an important voice for employees, including frontline and hourly workers. Founded in 2007, a hallmark of The Workforce Institute's research and education—including books, podcasts, surveys, blogs, and its annual list of workplace predictions—is balancing the needs and desires of diverse employee populations with the interests of organizations in order to manage absenteeism, fight burnout, develop equitable work schedules, and build strong leaders, all to drive inspired performance. For additional information, visit and join the conversation at @WF_Institute.


Footnote 1: Survey methodology
Research findings are based on a survey conducted by Savanta, Inc. for Workplace Intelligence on behalf of The Workforce Institute at UKG in June 2020. For this survey, 3,903 domestic and international respondents were asked general questions to explore leadership and employee attitudes around trust in the workplace, digital transformation, and crisis response/management. The study targeted people between the ages of 18 and 55 years old. Respondents are recruited through a number of different mechanisms, via different sources to join the panels and participate in market research surveys. All panelists have passed a double opt-in process and complete on average 300 profiling data points prior to taking part in surveys. Respondents are invited to take part via email and are provided with a small monetary incentive for doing so. Results of any sample are subject to sampling variation. The magnitude of the variation is measurable and is affected by the number of interviews and the level of the percentages expressing the results. In this particular study, the chances are 95 in 100 that a survey result does not vary, plus or minus, by more than 1.6 percentage points from the result that would be obtained if interviews had been conducted with all persons in the universe represented by the sample.

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