The desire for autonomy in the workplace continues to be a growing trend. Managers and business owners have learned, during the pandemic and beyond, that the level of workplace autonomy given to their employees has serious consequences for the success of their organizations.
In this post, we’ll break down why workplace autonomy is so important, what the benefits are for employees and workplaces, and how to build healthy, autonomous relationships between managers and employees.
What is the Definition of Autonomy?
The dictionary definition of autonomy is “self-directing freedom and, especially, moral independence.” While this autonomy definition may seem fitting, autonomy will mean something different to each individual. To a child, autonomy may be the freedom to choose when they go to bed. To a college student, it means being able to choose their courses or major.
Autonomy is sometimes called liberty, freedom, or independence. At its core, it means that we can choose what is best for ourselves rather than have our choice dictated by something or someone else.
In our personal lives, autonomy means we can choose our own goals and how we want to reach them. At the same time, that autonomy means we are the ones who dictate whether or not we achieve those goals. Workplace autonomy is more nuanced, and the results of workplace autonomy affect more than just individuals.
What is Autonomy in the Workplace
What is job autonomy? This is a question both employees and managers have pondered as the pandemic has given workers more autonomy in the workplace. Many employees now understand the importance of autonomy in choosing their work location, hours, and work-life balance.
Some people felt so strongly about their need to have autonomy over their work that they chose to leave their jobs if that autonomy was taken away, and they were forced to once again commute to the office.
Workplace autonomy does not only mean the freedom employees have to choose their work location. Overall, it refers to the degree to which employees can choose to work in the way that allows them to perform at their best. It can refer to the autonomy to choose when to work, the pace of work, how to organize and prioritize tasks, and when to expand on their duties and responsibilities.
Advantages of Autonomy in the Workplace
There are many advantages to providing employees with autonomy in the workplace.
- Boosts motivation and engagement. When managers trust their employees to complete their work on their own terms, the employees often work to prove they deserve that trust. They are more motivated to exceed expectations because their success is due to their personal achievements. They become more engaged in their work because they are personally invested in and motivated by their own success.
- Fosters creativity and innovation. Employees who are free to work how they wish are more likely to try out new ideas. This type of diverse thinking leads to innovative solutions that wouldn’t be possible in a highly-monitored workplace. Innovation means the organization is more adaptable to change and better able to overcome obstacles.
- Improves company culture. When employees have more autonomy, they are happier overall, leading to a positive, trusting culture. When employers trust their employees to complete their tasks, the employees, in turn, also trust their employers and managers to lead them.
- Decreases turnover and increases retention. Employees who can work how they want feel more valued and are more likely to stay with their employer for longer. This also boosts productivity because teams who have worked together well over time are more efficient.
- Promotes skill development. With increased freedom comes increased responsibility. Employees with autonomy must develop self-reliance and resilience in order to meet these responsibilities. They will prioritize learning new skills that will help them reach their self-designed goals.
- Builds leaders and assists in succession planning. As autonomous employees develop leadership qualities like self-reliance, leaders in the workplace will begin to emerge. This will help build a workforce of strong leaders who are ready to take the reigns in new, more advanced roles within the company.
Disadvantages of Autonomy in the Workplace
While there are more advantages to autonomy in the workplace than disadvantages, there are still some disadvantages to keep in mind. Most importantly, autonomous employees should not be operating in a vacuum. They still need support from their managers and employers.
Good communication between managers and autonomous employees is key. Regular check-ins with constructive two-way feedback will help employees understand when they are on the right track. Additionally, if an employee has substantial autonomy but is not well-equipped to succeed in their role, it will lead to poor performance and employee dissatisfaction.
Each individual will have a preferred level of autonomy, and it may take some time to find the right level of guidance and support while still allowing employees to work in their preferred style.
In some cases, when employees have more autonomy, managers may feel that their role is less important, they have fewer contributions, or their role is not needed. This is combated with an understanding that autonomy still requires managers to play an active role in an employee’s development and goals.
What is an Example of Autonomy in the Workplace?
Examples of autonomy in the workplace include:
- Allowing employees to set their own schedule. Not everyone will thrive on a typical 9-5 work schedule. When employees can work during the hours that best suit them, they will be able to maximize their efficiency and improve their work-life balance.
- Allowing employees to work where they want. As a result of the pandemic and an increased desire for balance, many employees found that they prefer working from home, while others prefer the office or a hybrid option. Freedom to work where you want is now a highly desired part of workplace autonomy.
- Allowing employees to set their own deadlines. Instead of telling an employee when they should finish a project, ask them when would be a reasonable deadline for their current workload. Once they have established the deadline, let them design their own process to achieve that deadline.
- Allowing employees to organize their tasks and day-to-day processes. Rather than prioritizing tasks and setting all meeting times, let employees manage their daily workflow at a pace that works for them.
- Asking employees for input on high-level goals. When asked for input, employees feel their opinions and thoughts are valued; it gives them a sense of ownership over the projects they are working on.
- Asking employees how they feel about the level of autonomy they have. Does their schedule, pace, and organization of tasks empower them to succeed? Is there a feeling of ownership over their work? Do they feel trusted, and do they trust the people they work with? Gain an understanding of your workplace autonomy by reaching out and gathering feedback. This will help ensure you maintain a level of autonomy that feels comfortable for each individual employee.
How to Build More Autonomy in the Workplace
Create a Culture of Trust and Transparency
Mutual trust is the keystone of workplace autonomy, and it begins with clear and effective communication. Employees and managers should meet regularly for one-on-ones in order to review progress, assist with trouble spots, and celebrate successes.
Keep the lines of communication open, and, as a manager, make your expectations clear. Ensure direct reports have the resources they need, including training, supplies, support, and consistent, constructive feedback. Trust won’t appear overnight; it takes time to develop. As a team, you must continually work to build and maintain that trust.
💡 Learn more in our guides: How to Build Trust in the Workplace and Transparent Communication in the Workplace.
Allow People to Learn From Mistakes
Giving employees the space and autonomy to try new things means they will inevitably make mistakes at some point. But mistakes are not necessarily bad—they are a major opportunity for growth.
When an employee makes a mistake, take the time to go through the situation with them and help them figure out how to improve next time. You may even include this process in a personalized development plan to help employees progress in their role and career.
Reacting to mistakes with anger or annoyance will only make that employee afraid to come to you for help, and it will stifle creativity, prevent progress, and diminish any chance of autonomy. True innovation comes from making mistakes, learning, and growing from each experience.
Give Employees the Freedom to Work How They Prefer
Each individual employee has a style of working that allows them to excel at work. Employers can provide several freedoms that enable employees to maximize their efficiency, such as location flexibility, work hour flexibility, setting their own schedule, prioritizing their own work, and setting their own deadlines.
Provide workplace autonomy by giving employees the option to work how they work best. In turn, this freedom will improve work-life balance, reduce stress, and make them more likely to work for you longer.
Stop Micromanaging and Get Out of the Way
Most workers find a micromanaging employer at the very least annoying and at the very most a reason to leave their job. However, it can be difficult for managers to let go of control when it comes to monitoring their employees’ work.
Employers who micromanage are actually wasting their own time, which could be better spent on more important tasks, leadership, strategy, and their own work-life balance. Micromanaging also slows employees down, as it prevents them from designing an optimal work environment in which they can maximize their efficiency.
Employees need guidance and support—they do not need someone dictating exactly how and when to do their jobs. Workplace autonomy works best when managers step back from managing every small detail and, instead, are available for support, encouragement, and constructive feedback.
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