HR Management, Strategic HR

Leap of Faith: Trusting Your Employees Enough to Go Virtual

There’s a sea change taking place in the workforce that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Sure, you’ve heard of the “gig economy.” You’re probably familiar with the idea that Millennials—who crave autonomy and value jobs that give them a sense of purpose—are overturning traditional notions of the employer-employee relationship.leap

But an under-the-radar transformation is also taking place, a disruption in leadership philosophy that is driving change as radical as the transformation wrought by more obvious factors like technology and globalization. It’s a leader-driven change that can be summed up as letting go of control and embracing trust. That’s a leap of faith CEOs and business owners can and should make.

Changing Workforce, Changing Expectations

One of the defining traits of the manufacturing economy was a workforce on a factory floor, with managers supervising workers’ every move. It was all about control; supervisors watched workers like hawks, and improvements in efficiency were driven from the top down. We no longer live in that world. According to Intuit, 34% of the workforce is already engaged in the gig economy.

By 2020, Intuit predicts that number will rise to 4%. And in an era of near-full employment, it’s not lack of traditional corporate work that is fueling the freelance revolution: it’s the desire for autonomy. Millennials, now the largest demographic in the workplace, are famously focused on achieving greater work/life balance, but autonomy appeals to every generation.

If you are a company leader who is determined to grow your business by attracting and retaining the best and brightest, this new reality demands a new way of thinking about work, a fresh look at what constitutes a company culture, and innovation in your leadership style. It requires a new compact with employees, leaving control-based paternalism behind and embracing trust-based collaboration.

Share a Vision, Not a Space

CEOs and small business owners can see that the workplace is changing. They know that employees are demanding more autonomy. As a company leader, you may have already engaged some gig workers and provided work-from-home perks to onsite staff. But too many leaders are still afraid to embrace the concept of a 100% virtual workforce. In many cases, what’s holding them back is fear.

Fear is a natural reaction to loss of control, and many leaders have internalized the outdated belief that they can’t control what they can’t see—a concept we already know isn’t true. On a personal level, we manage everything from bank accounts to our coffee supply using technology to remotely control our assets. And the proof is growing that remote workforces are more productive than in-house peers.

So, what replaces line-of-sight control in the remote workforce? Communication is key. Leaders and employees share a vision rather than a space. They use telepresence technology for face-time and collaboration platforms to work together in real time. But most of all, they share goals and a sense of purpose. In this way, 100% remote companies can build a culture without walls.

Lose Overhead, Gain Greater Engagement, and Productivity

Before taking a leap of faith and fully embracing a remote workforce, you’ll need to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. On the cost side of the ledger are the expenses required to hire an employee, and the hourly wage or salary is only the beginning. Even if you don’t offer benefits and paid time off, you still must make Medicare and Social Security contributions and pay federal and state unemployment taxes.

Tack on the costs of renting and maintaining office space and the technology infrastructure required to support an onsite team (always considerable but positively untenable in some locations), and the overhead expenses are daunting. But with a remote team of contractors, you’ll be free to invest that money back into the business.

The potential to reap huge savings by eliminating overhead expenses are a powerful incentive. But to calculate the true value of a remote workforce, factor in the enormous opportunity gaining a more engaged, productive workforce represents. Higher productivity levels are easy to measure, but the value of greater levels of employee loyalty is real, if hard to calculate.

Trust Employees—and Take that Leap of Faith

Sometimes, the only way to overcome fear is to take that leap of faith—to trust employees to handle their jobs without direct supervision. It also takes faith in your own ability to create a productive and achievement-focused workplace culture without walls. More and more leaders of top-performing companies are taking the plunge—and receiving vindication in the form of business success.

Leaders who successfully go virtual will find that trust is a two-way street: They trust employees to handle their jobs like adults, and employees trust them to act in the employee’s best interests. Such levels of trust don’t happen in a vacuum: You’ll need to nurture trust with communication and signal that you have your employees’ backs. Employees must deliver on their promise with high productivity.

But when employers and employees take that leap of faith together, it’s a beautiful thing for everyone involved—business leaders, team members, and the customers they serve. Ready or not, a new workplace is emerging, one that isn’t contained by walls, and where leadership happens without visibility. The good news is, the lack of physical boundaries means the sky is the limit.

Bryan Miles is CEO and cofounder of BELAY. Miles (alongside his wife and co-founder, Shannon) leads a U.S.-based virtual solutions company that has over 550 people on payroll, all working from home, virtually. Prior to starting BELAY, Miles worked for companies in the tech and construction industries. Miles obtained his B.A. in business from Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon.