How (and why) to support employee autonomy at work

Chuck Leddy
Chuck Leddy

Work has been changing long before COVID-19, with automation and artificial intelligence increasingly taking on tasks that are repetitive or subject to some predictable formula.

As technology does more, the work that humans do has become more complex and creative, i.e., not yet capable of being done by algorithms. 

Meanwhile, remote and hybrid work models have permanently altered the relationship between management and employees. The traditional 9-5 office work model is dead.

The increased employee autonomy driven by new work models has actually been better for (1) employees and (2) employers alike. 

What is autonomy at work?

Giving employees more autonomy at work simply reflects the reality that work itself has changed and so our approach must too.. 

Top-down, command-and-control management emerged from the early-20th Century idea that work needed to be strictly organized from the top, like a military operation. Business leaders are the  Generals commanding the foot soldiers who needed to be trained and supervised, allowing for zero employee autonomy. 

Workers were once largely in factories and had to follow orders, never thinking for themselves. In this top-down structure leadership had all the answers, tightly controlled the tools of production, and thus employee autonomy was actually dangerous to operational efficiency.

Work has changed, so must work models

Humans today are generally 'knowledge workers' (not assembly line automatons) doing tasks that are more complex and that require creativity and high-level judgement. Employee autonomy means that leadership must actually trust employees and give them enough freedom to make choices based on the work contexts in front of them. 

Employee autonomy at work is about combining freedom and accountability, with managers in a support role, not the command-and-control role. 

Many business leaders from the old school remain nervous that giving employees more autonomy and flexibility will unleash chaos, resulting in employees working less and goofing off more. 

Well, the jury has spoken: COVID-19 and our recent experience with remote and hybrid work has proven these old school leaders wrong, as employee productivity has actually increased in some sectors due to remote work.

Autonomy doesn’t destroy accountability

Management fears aside, employee autonomy at work doesn’t mean the elimination of employee accountability. Leadership and management will continue to set the goals and explain what the expectations are, while also holding employees accountable when expectations go unmet. Employees decide the how, meaning they can work in ways that accommodate how they prefer, working when and where they want. 

The good news for employers is that flexibility actually drives employee engagement and retention, as well as productivity. When managers seek to control the what and the how, the best employees leave, decimating productivity.

Decades of research has proven that employees doing complex or creative work are more productive and more engaged when they feel a sense of control over how and when they work. When leaders choose a top-down approach, the best employees tend to leave the company for somewhere that has more autonomy.

3 ways to drive employee autonomy and productivity

1. Change leadership mindsets. 

Leaders need to stop thinking about work in pre-pandemic terms. Today’s work is much more complex and creative: workers are not cogs that you can easily replace. 

Leaders need to transition from the people who have all the answers to the people who support flexible ways of working so employees can be their most productive. You don’t need to manage tasks or time: you simply define the what (goals and expectations) and let employees go about defining their own how.

2. Develop flexible policies and programs to support autonomy at work. 

Organizations need to shift control from the top to their employees, no matter how scary this shift sounds. If you say you want employees who are self-starters and who will work independently, you have to develop policies and programs that empower exactly that. 

Don’t espouse employee empowerment and then practice micromanagement. Create a good employee experience, and you’ll retain (and attract) great employees who will drive great results.

3. Provide the tools and technologies that enable autonomy at work. 

Think enablement, not battling for control over employees’ time, and offer your employees the flexible tools and technologies that support how and where they want to work. 

When developing your tech stack, put employee experience first and your employees will reciprocate by putting your organization’s goals first. The sooner you move towards employee empowerment and workplace autonomy, the better you’ll do.

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