By Hannah Kaiser

As the rates of remote work have skyrocketed in the past few years, so has employee autonomy. More and more, employees are choosing how to do their work, when to do it, and where. Organizations are increasingly seeing that they may need to start balancing granting their employees’ independence, while also ensuring that they are performing effectively within their roles. 

Questions about autonomy and how to manage it may be especially important for organizations with plans to get employees back into the office. Employees and their leaders negotiating remote vs. in-person work schedules has become quite common since the 2020 pandemic. Those conversations weren’t really happening before, so some organizations may find themselves struggling to navigate them. Many people are now advocating for less time spent physically at the office, or they at least expect to have a say in what their schedule looks like. So, in most cases, it is worth it to do an analysis on how to give employees independence balanced with direction, and finding models that are advantageous for everyone. 

Said differently, employees want their organization and especially their leaders to see them as individual people, and to give them the space to decide how to grow. Allowing them autonomy is a good way to do that.

Autonomy is Better for Everyone 

The good news is that autonomy is actually beneficial for the organization. As a leader, it is in your best interest to trust your employees to make some decisions for themselves. As a result, you are likely to find they are overall better employees that way. 

Researchers have found that there are many beneficial outcomes of increased autonomy: 

  • Autonomy improves performance. Gartner found that providing employees with autonomy on decisions such as when, where, and how much they work—and even what they work on—can increase the number of employees in a workforce described as ‘high performing’ by 40%. 
  • Relieves stress. Along with an increase in productivity, employees who are given the parameters of autonomy listed above are far less likely to experience burnout.
  • Increases job satisfaction. A meta-analysis on the way remote work leads to perceived autonomy shows that employees who feel they have autonomy are more likely to be content within their role, possibly because autonomy allows them to experience greater ownership of their accomplishments.
  • Decreases work-life conflict. With increased autonomy, employees tend to be better equipped to handle potentially conflicting demands between their work and their home life. This is perhaps because autonomy allows schedules to shift as needed, although simply feeling greater autonomy may offer people a sense of increased self-efficacy.
  • And reduces turnover. Finally, when organizations give their employees autonomy, people are much less likely to leave. Otherwise, when organizations show they distrust their employees, those people may become frustrated and resentful. 

It will likely be detrimental in the long term for leaders to restrict the autonomy of their employees. Working to increase perceptions of autonomy will be a worthwhile endeavor. 

Increasing (and Managing) Autonomy

Promoting autonomy can be a balancing act. Too little will create stress, burnout, reduce productivity, and may even drive employees to leave your company. Too much autonomy may create conflict through miscommunication and misunderstandings about expectations from both sides. Ideally, leaders can offer a greater number of choices to their employees, while also guaranteeing productivity. 

Leaders need to create appropriate boundaries when they increase autonomy. Here are a few tips on how to do that effectively:

  • Which rules are serving you well? Certain limits on employee decision-making may be unnecessary and detrimental. Examining the rulebook to find where some leniency can occur will be worth the effort, even if done simply to increase perceptions of autonomy. For example, perhaps office dress codes are a bit too stifling. Or, maybe strict guidelines on decor for employee office spaces are suppressing self-expression. 
  • Mindfully set expectations. Not all organizations are able to offer radical autonomy, where employees are essentially left to their own devices. In fact, most people appreciate a little guidance once in a while. Some mandates may be necessary (such as setting deadlines, or requiring some amount of in-person work), but try prioritizing trust. Create a culture where employees know what needs to be done, but are comfortable telling you exactly what they need to get it done.
  • Co-create working schedules and styles. Simply having a say in how they work can increase people’s sense of autonomy. Negotiating schedules (and even other aspects of work, such as who takes on which projects with whom) should be an equal conversation rather than a decree on the part of leadership. Compromise works best here but, again, lean towards the side of increased autonomy when possible.
  • Encourage authenticity. A big part of autonomy will come from an employee’s ability to express their true feelings and opinions. Of course, part of encouraging authenticity will include allowing employees to express their unique personalities and experiences at work. However, it will also be necessary to encourage them to speak up when they have a new idea, or even when they disagree with something. Accepting their feedback as their leader will also be important. 

Following the above steps is a good place to start. Of course, leaders should be prepared to make adjustments as needed. Increased autonomy and negotiating work schedules may be new to some organizations, and finding the best kind of middle ground that is beneficial to everyone may take time.

The Benefits of Self-set Goals

It’s more than just about work scheduling. Another facet of autonomy that many employees desire, and that some organizations may be reluctant to grant them, is how they decide to grow within their career.

Many leaders feel the need to direct their employees in certain areas—tell them what skills they need to develop, and how they should do it. However, research demonstrates that using organization-set goals during goal-setting (generally utilized by leaders to increase employee motivation) can potentially have the opposite of the desired effect.

People are more susceptible to stress, and may very well eventually burn out, when they feel pressured to achieve a goal that has been assigned to them. However, when they are given the autonomy to set goals for themselves, they are much more likely to experience self-efficacy and be motivated to complete those goals. 

When meeting with employees to discuss how they want to grow within the organization, allow them to lead the conversation. Of course, leader guidance is still acceptable (and likely appreciated), but encouraging employees to create plans for themselves is ideal and beneficial in building trust and engagement.

We know this can sometimes be difficult, but ultimately giving your employees a voice will benefit your teams and organizations in the long-run. If you think you would benefit from an impartial perspective, let’s talk. Contact us for a no-obligation, free consultation by clicking this link: Innovative Connections or calling us at 970-279-3330.

Our mission is to give voice and action to an emerging future. As a partner in your success, we would love to help you find your voice, see your vision, and imagine what the right action could be for you, your team, and your organization.