Sara, a project manager at an IT consulting firm, is dropping her child to school. Her project meeting is due to start at 8 AM. As she gets into the parking lane, she connects her phone to the car speaker, kisses her daughter a hurried goodbye, reverses and exits the school gate. Giving her boss and team updates as she drives, she finishes her meeting just before she reaches home. The start of another work day, she knows, and it’s just going to get crazier with the looming deadline. Sounds familiar?
A few years ago, prior to the pandemic, few people had the privilege of such flexibility, which was available to a handful of roles. Today, however, is a different story. With remote and hybrid working firmly ensconced in every employee’s life, flexibility is slowly becoming the norm. However, flexibility is just one small portion of rising employee expectations. While organisations are increasingly beginning to realise that they may require to provide remote and hybrid work models, employees want a larger slice of the pie, which is autonomy. So, how is employee autonomy different from just flexibility?
To put it in perspective, employee autonomy is really the bigger umbrella. Flexibility, in fact, is just one part of employee autonomy. Employees want the ability to make decisions regarding their work-life balance and often resent mandates. Increasingly, employees are expecting to be active participants in decision-making processes for the company. What was previously a senior management and HR domain now expects employees to participate in decisions regarding hybrid working or flexible work schedules.
In the new normal, companies have realised that they need to cater to the demands of autonomy from employees. The lack of autonomy can have a negative impact on employee morale, resulting in lower performance. When employees feel that they do not have a choice, they may head for what they perceive as greener pastures in terms of work-life balance, resulting in high attrition rates. Employee wants aside, there are several reasons why employee autonomy is important.
Let’s take a step back and understand what autonomy is. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the meaning of autonomy is “a self-governing state” or “self-directing freedom and especially moral independence”. Employee autonomy, then, is the perception of having choices in work-life. But, why is this freedom of choice important?
The famous Maslow’s pyramid for motivation focusses on physiological, security, love and belonging and esteem needs being mostly satisfied before being able to self-actualise to realise complete individual potential. On the other hand, there are several contemporary self-determination theories (SDT) of motivation. The macro-theory was propounded by Dr. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and there has been extensive supporting research. One of the theories of SDT focuses on three innate psychological needs for all humans, namely, autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Autonomy is essentially the desire or feeling of being at complete psychological liberty and having the freedom of internal will. Research has found that such autonomous motivation increases performance, engagement and wellness. Competence is the desire of people to seek control of the outcome and master the task. Positive feedback pushes people to do better and fulfils their need to become competent. Relatedness is linked to belonging, which is the desire to be connected to others and care for them. People who have these needs fulfilled are likely to reach their highest potential.
Viola, when organisations take cognisance of these innate psychological needs, you have a happy and engaged workforce! Of these, autonomy is one area where employers can make several strides. For instance, mandating that employees come to the office on all five days of the week may lead to mass resignations or dissatisfied employees as they could feel that their autonomy has been violated. On the other hand, giving people the choice of coming to the office three of the five days is a way of providing autonomy to employees. In fact, structured hybrid work, which refers to people coming to the office on a fixed number of days, is on the rise. According to The Flex Report, 30 per cent of offices offer structured hybrid work arrangements in the second quarter of 2023, as compared to 20 per cent in the first quarter. And, the share of people fully in offices is down to 42 per cent in the second quarter, as compared to 49 per cent in the first quarter. These figures demonstrate that companies are not just listening to employee needs but also going all out to satisfy them.
Offering employee autonomy has several benefits. Apart from the obvious greater happiness quotient, being autonomous gives employees an irreplaceable feeling of being heard by the organisation, which drives intrinsic motivation and employee satisfaction. Employees are conscious that they are accountable for decisions and work hard to do their best. A study by Gartner found that a human-centric work design that combines flexible experiences, intentional collaboration and empathy management results in 3.8 times likelihood of employee performance, 3.2 times chances of employee retention and 3.1 times possibilities of low fatigue — all factors that drive organisational success. Choice drives both employee performance and retention; employees with autonomy were 2.3 times more likely to perform better and stay at work as compared to those who did not. While extrinsic motivation such as salary and perks are necessary for any workplace, intrinsic motivation holds the key to employee engagement, resulting in improved employee retention, job performance and satisfaction.
While employee autonomy has several benefits, the lack of structure can lead to chaos and confusion. Human Resources (HR) and business leaders should work together to arrive at an optimum strategy that delivers benefits to both the organisation and the employees.
Issue guidelines rather than mandates: Prescribing principles and practices instead of strict policies would be more acceptable to employees. Organisations have varied requirements based on business considerations, work culture or client contracts. For instance, for hybrid working, an organisation may mandate two fixed days in the office and one day based on the convenience of the team, as was done at Apple. HDFC Bank in India continued to provide a work from home option for a few days of the week even post the pandemic, based on requests, especially from women. Providing flexibility in terms of location and timings based on workforce demands is one way to provide employee autonomy.
Bear in mind, trust is a two-way street: If you need your employees to trust you, well, you need to trust them too. While decision-making is a shared process, it also builds accountability and puts the onus on the employee to do the job well. A culture of open and transparent communication is a must.
Expectations from employees need to be stated and documented as policies. Companies need to consciously build a diverse and inclusive workforce, free of hiring biases. Trust employees to use their time productively while not being under the gaze of a team leader or manager. Keep them accountable with timesheets and update meetings.
Policies for employee data privacy and confidentiality need to exist so that the employee is assured of a safe and secure work environment. Leaders and managers need to be trained to delegate work to ensure that every employee feels valued and is part of the larger scheme of things. Knowledge sharing and collaboration should be encouraged.
Target the right talent: People are the cornerstone of organisational success. Hire people who can function optimally in an autonomous work environment. Apart from the required skill set, they must have the ability to function independently, at least some of the time, participate in decision making and have good communication skills. It’s important to have conversations about the degree of autonomy to set the right expectations.
Leverage technology: Digital platforms and tools are now the norm across industries and businesses. Investing in hardware and software that enable seamless remote and hybrid work ensures that employees can easily communicate and collaborate amongst themselves and their team. Virtual fireside chats and townhalls and “ask the expert” sessions are all possible at large scale, reaching remote workers in different continents.
Integrate applications and systems to ensure smooth workflows across the organisation. Allow for some flexibility in tools and technologies that help teams and individuals as long as they do not compromise on data privacy and security regulations.
Set up for success: Tracking progress at an individual or organisational level is important, both from the perspective of business requirements and employee satisfaction. Provide a framework for goal setting, performance measurement, and rewards and recognition. By doing so, employees have the flexibility of setting their own goals, while the performance measures help both the employee and the organisation track productivity and efficiency. Tracking at regular intervals helps set benchmarks, which, in turn, helps employees measure their own progress and performance.
Organisations also need to provide upskilling opportunities and invest in a growth mindset, so that employees continue to feel competent and valued.
Enabling employee autonomy is going to be high on the agenda for business leaders who are building the workplace of the future. Organisations need to walk the tightrope between accountability and autonomy while navigating the resistance to change, existing organisational hierarchies and the high expectations of employees. A framework of autonomy, competence and relatedness will create a highly motivated workforce that drives business growth and innovation.
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