Encouraging employee autonomy in your work culture

Often overlooked, one of the most important factors in creating good working roles is autonomy, the freedom to execute the tasks given to you as you see fit and to engage in the working style you have deemed best suited towards yourself. It’s a concept much coveted in the modern working generation, with one study of more than 2,000 people across three continents finding that “people were nearly two and a half times more likely to take a job that gave them more autonomy than they were to want a job that gave them more influence“, but it’s a concept that a lot of leaders still struggle to understand the importance of.

We seem to be stuck in this idea that being present at our desks from 9 – 5, Monday to Friday, automatically makes us “good workers”. The long running joke of “the boss is coming, look busy!” is the perfect example of our mindset: during working hours we need to be actively working, regardless of the impossibility of achieving effective productivity when not allowed to work within our own preferred perimeters. Every day it seems there’s a new article or study touting the importance of taking regular breaks, socializing with colleagues, exercising during the working day, etc. Change may be hard to champion or even embrace, but modern business leaders should be encouraged to open their minds to one very simple concept: if the work gets done, effectively and within any deadline, does it matter how it’s done?

The benefits of employee autonomy are evident. Studies have shown time and time again that autonomy not only makes people more satisfied with their jobs, but it can make them feel 50% more satisfied with their lives, which is directly reflected in their work and creativity. They are also less likely to leave their positions when granted autonomy, with the negative effects of micromanagement being cited as one of the three top reasons employees chose to resign. Autonomy has also been shown to lead to higher engagement at work and to alleviate negative emotions; according to one study, autonomy could even contribute to significant stress relief and decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. Absenteeism appears to be affected by a lack of autonomy, also. Studies have shown that workers with a less than average feeling of control in their work used 20% more sick leave, which was particularly noticeable when under stress or working long hours. Numerous studies have shown the effect autonomy can have on employees’ mental health, and if the cited figures aren’t enough to convince you of its benefits, consider also that better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year.

So how do we go about encouraging employee autonomy in a work environment that hasn’t fully embraced it? The best place to start is to change our collective mindset. Understanding that our own personal enjoyment of our job, with the freedom to perform it in the most effective way we chose, is beneficial to both the employee and the business. We need to unscrew ourselves from the ‘work-work-work‘ mentality, not ignoring our own personal needs and preferences in case management doesn’t agree. Joan F. Cheverie, manager of Professional Development Programs at EDUCAUSE, encourages employees to set their own goals. “Self-chosen goals,” she says, “create a specific kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation—the desire to do something for its own sake.” Pekka Pohjakallio and Saku Tuominen, authors of ‘The Workbook: Redesigning 925‘, talk of the importance of working from home, striving to end the collective belief that working from home is synonymous with bunking off school. “Over the years we’ve quietly come to accept being treated like children who will steal a cookie as soon as no one is looking,” they write. But being present at your desk from 9-5 does not mean you are working, just like working from home does not mean you are skiving, and the freedom of choice that working from home gives can noticeably increase productivity along with relieving stress. Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s vice president (EMEA), especially encourages people to take time off work if possible, calling for an end to the stigma surrounding mental health needs.

“If you’re exhausted mid-afternoon on a Thursday, there should be no shame in saying, “I’m going to the cinema, I’m going to renew myself because this means tomorrow I’m going to be back on it.” Your boss would do it, but lower down the food chain, work is less trusting to people. We need to change that. […] Everyone should be inspired to change their culture even if they’re not the boss.”  — Bruce Daisley

At a managerial level it can sometimes be hard to give up our perceived control. A leader’s own identity can often feel like its closely tied to his/her accumulated expertise and knowledge, and trusting others to do their jobs on their own can be tough for some, but it’s an extremely important lesson to learn. At the end of the day it is important to recognize that a leader’s responsibility is managing people, not tasks. A leader can set the strategic direction, deadlines, and benchmarks and then allow the rest of the team to determine how to accomplish the job and live up to their full potential.

“You’ve got a team (made up of unique individuals) whose members have their own personal working style—which may not mesh with how you’ve always successfully done your work. That, however, doesn’t mean that their way is wrong. While your hard-earned expertise and knowledge have gotten you to where you are today (and probably is something you still enjoy doing), to be a successful manager and leader, you now need to step back and delegate that work to the team.” — Joan F. Cheverie

Once the hesitant manager is more comfortable with the concept of autonomy, there are numerous ways to begin putting it in place. David Rock, executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, suggests giving employees a framework within which they can make their own choices: “Try defining the end result really clearly,” he writes, “and outlining the boundaries of what behaviors are okay, then let people create within this frame.” And then, just leave your employees to their work. Don’t get caught up in how a task is being done, leave aside performance metrics and focus instead on the end product. Was the task accomplished effectively and within the deadline? If yes, then the employee has done an outstanding job, however they chose to do it.

Autonomy in the workplace means letting go of conventional norms and embracing a modern mindset with all its values. It means bringing out the best in staff by utilising their power. By trusting your team, a courageous leader will be rewarded with high-performing and highly engaged staff, who will recognise the leader as a great one.