In today’s volatile business world, businesses are increasingly looking for ways to be agile rather than fragile. One way of achieving this is to use freelance talent to quickly source resources when – and only when – they are needed. This model sees groups of people come together to carry out a specific project and then part ways when the project is complete.

  • At its best, this model allows a business to quickly and efficiently pivot to new opportunities by instantly accessing competent, motivated contractors with the specialist skills required in the moment.
  • At its worst, it descends into chaos, with hastily briefed, unmotivated or unsuitable freelancers contributing to inefficient, fragmented and poor-quality processes.

Businesses need to ask themselves how they can achieve the best version of this model. I believe that a key factor is trust.

As a full-time freelancer for over ten years – both as a commissioner and as a supplier of editorial services – I’ve experienced high-trust environments, low-trust environments and everything in between. It is my firm belief that high-trust environments have a huge advantage in terms of efficiency and quality. Following are some reasons why.

Reasons to trust your freelancers

1. Trust decreases waste

According to the professional services firm Grant Thornton:

Trust can simplify and speed up business processes. Research across a range of industry sectors – from marketing to manufacturing – suggests that, when trust plays this role, it can enable quicker adjustment to changed business conditions and reduce transaction costs.

Essentially, transaction costs are necessary waste – for example, the time you spend looking for resources or setting up a contract. So, if more trust means lower transaction costs, more trust also means less wasted time.

A major motivation for working with freelancers is reduced overheads and HR costs, but too many businesses mistakenly eat into those savings by laying down overly stringent requirements. Instead of trusting the freelancers to get on with the job as contracted experts, they try to control every minute detail of what the freelancers do and expect them to explicitly confirm they have complied with each of those tiny stipulations.

To be clear: I am not saying that companies shouldn’t place specific demands on their freelancers or have exacting standards. But there is a distinction between empowering freelancers to thoroughly fulfil your brief (trust me, they want to) and trying to circumvent every possible major or minor disaster.

This leads us on to my second tip.

2. Good freelancers don’t need to be monitored

‘Deliberate freelancers’ (as Melanie Padgett Powers cleverly calls people who make the active choice to build a freelance business) have probably partly chosen to be freelance to get away from micromanaging and intensive oversight.

These are people who are self-disciplined and motivated enough to work a full day, every day, without a boss ever once telling them they have to. They run all aspects of their business (from marketing to chair ergonomics) and take sole responsibility for their own personal development because they want to. They will not be motivated by a tick-box approach and they don’t need one.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t provide freelancers with checklists or detailed briefs on what you do and don’t want. And I’m certainly not saying that freelancers are prima donnas who want to be left alone to do whatever they think best with your project. Checklists and briefs are vital foundations of any project. But there’s a difference between letting freelancers use their intelligence to apply a checklist (encouraging them to raise queries where required) and making the checklist the be-all and end-all of how the freelancer’s work is judged.

This is especially the case in the editing world. A checklist can be a handy and effective way of determining when a freelancer has not fulfilled part of the brief. However, it is a woefully inadequate way of assessing all the delicate wizardry that goes into making a piece of writing fit for its intended readership, genre and format.

3. Trusting your freelancers increases motivation and innovation

When people feel they are trusted to make decisions (within a defined remit) and that their contribution is valued, their motivation increases.

Equally, when people feel a lack of trust or belief in the value of what they bring to the table, they can become demotivated.

I’ve written here about how psychological safety (i.e. an environment of openness where questions are encouraged) creates better working relationships, and trust is a big factor in this. Trust increases motivation.

And, on the back of this increased motivation, you are likely to get increased innovation. When you have trust and shared understanding in a working relationship, you get something of the freelancer’s essence. They become willing to give you just a tiny bit of the precious lifeblood that makes their mind sing with passion, fire and focus. You simply don’t get that from a tick-box exercise. As Tine Thygesen, writing for Forbes, says:

The problem is that many organizations have over-engineered themselves into a setup where standards, scorecards and checklists trump common sense and human thinking. This overzealous regime becomes a black hole where innovation and new ideas go to die.

Perhaps you’re looking for freelancers to act in a consultative capacity to identify new ideas and new ways of achieving your core business targets. Or perhaps you’re just looking for general creativity, excellent judgement and dynamic problem-solving skills. Either way, an environment of trust is far more likely to nurture good ideas.

4. Trusting your freelancers reduces risk

Yes, trust requires you to give up a certain amount of control, and this can feel somewhat disquieting. Especially when you’re working with those you haven’t met in person, it can feel like you’re never quite sure who you’re trusting or whether they deserve your trust. However much due diligence you carry out to vet potential freelancers, there is always an element of risk.

But, as John Hagel and John Seely Brown argue in Control vs. Trust:

Trust is a much more versatile and powerful way than control to deliver business results in an increasingly interdependent and uncertain world.

Control makes us feel safe. But safe can be fragile and unstable, and it puts all the pressure on you – as the person in control – to avoid catastrophe. In contrast, if you trust others to work with you as partners who understand the wider context of your endeavour and share your end goals, you get backup and a collegial, solutions-focused spirit when things go wrong.

By taking a small, tangible risk, you drastically mitigate the wider and less tangible risks that come from constructing a project team in name only: a ‘team’ that doesn’t understand, care about or invest in your project’s ultimate goals.

Why should you care about trust?

You should care because if you’re not thinking about and nurturing your relationships with your freelancers – creating an environment in which you can trust and be trusted – you may be leaving huge financial and quality benefits on the table.

The relationships and projects I enjoy most with clients (and my suppliers when I’m working as a project manager) are the ones where there is dynamism and a shared passion for achieving the best product we can within the time and budget available to us.

I didn’t begin working as a freelance editor because I wanted to complete checklists (although, for the record, despite the extensive checklist-bashing in this post, I am very partial to them). I went freelance because I wanted to work with clients who inspire and empower me to give them the very best of my professional experience and judgement.

Ultimately, the recipe for trust is easy: find the right person, tell them what you’re about and what you want from them, and then trust them to get on with it.

Trust upgrades

  • Conduct a time audit. How much time are you spending monitoring freelancers. Is it all necessary? Do you actually have time to read all the status reports you request? Do work samples end up sitting around until it’s too late in the project to give actionable feedback? Are you receiving endless copied emails that just clog up your inbox? Think about whether you’re spending your time in the most efficient way.
  • Conduct a documentation audit. Are you spending too much time answering freelancers’ questions – or, worse, cleaning up messes because freelancers never asked questions they should have? Consider whether your freelancers have the information they need and are being encouraged to ask questions.
  • Upskill yourself and ensure you spend sufficient time researching potential freelancers so you can be as certain as possible that somebody is worthy of your trust.
  • Look at your budgets. Are you paying freelancers enough to attract people who are trustworthy – who take their business (and therefore their clients) seriously?
  • Invest in long-term relationships. The more solid and comprehensive a foundation trust has, the more effortless it becomes.
  • Particularly invest in the start of a relationship. A good initial conversation (ideally face to face, even if this is only done virtually) will pay off long term as it will provide opportunities to spark joint understanding – a key prerequisite for trust.
  • Brief freelancers thoroughly and holistically. Tell them about the project’s context and history, not just whether you want them to use the serial comma or not. This will enable them to make much better and more nuanced decisions on your behalf.
  • Don’t hide the mess. Every business and every project has areas that are a bit muddier than we’d ideally like. Tell freelancers about that difficult author or that pig of a chapter so they can approach them fully equipped to handle them with sensitivity.
  • Know what to look for. You can create yourself a big trust shortcut by only considering freelancers who are properly vetted (e.g. members of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, of which I am an Advanced Professional Member).
  • Think of trust as a staircase. Obviously, you shouldn’t put the same amount of trust in a newbie freelancer as someone who has worked with you for ten years. So think of trust in terms of what is appropriate in each given situation.

Image credit: Illustration 124786442 © Rodolphe TriderDreamstime.com

About Hazel Bird

Hazel is an editorial project manager, copyeditor and proofreader who works with businesses, charities, publishers, academics and students to make their projects happen. She was once described as ’superhuman’ and is still wondering whether this is a good thing.

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