January 6, 2023

Why autonomous teams are so important in the workplace today

Editorial Team
Why autonomous teams are so important in the workplace today

Autonomy in the workplace improves productivity, creativity, and engagement while micromanagement is a deal breaker.

Nobody likes being micromanaged. Having your boss breathing down your neck is detrimental to your performance. Research shows that micromanagement hurts productivity, morale, and motivation, and contributes to employee turnover. On the other hand, employees who enjoy a degree of freedom in the way they work perform better, show creativity and innovation, and are more engaged, motivated, and likely to stay with their employers for a long time. This is why more and more organisations today are leaning towards greater autonomy for their employees, having realised that it is essential to succeeding and keeping their talent pool intact in the challenging new world of work.

In this article, we’ll talk about the importance of autonomy in the workplace and why organisations need to create autonomous teams.

If you need help building autonomous, agile, and high-performing teams, try the MuchSkills skills matrix – a skills visualisation of your teams’ strengths and weaknesses, which is just the tool you need to support their upskilling and growth and to close any skills gaps in your organisation.

What is workplace autonomy?

Autonomy in the workplace means to give your employees the freedom to decide how, when, and where they work. It shows that you trust them to get the work done on their terms but in pursuit of a common organisational goal. Here are some instances of what workplace autonomy looks like. An autonomous workplace could include some or all of the following:

  • Your employees decide whether they work from home or the office.
  • They have the flexibility to choose their work schedules.
  • They decide the pace at which they complete their work and set their own deadlines.  
  • They are free to pick the projects and teams they want.
  • They make their own decisions, solve their own problems, and work with minimum supervision.     
  • They are assessed on their performance and not on how visible they are to their managers and supervisors.

While autonomy does away with micromanagement, it doesn’t mean that employees work in isolation or without guidance. In an environment that promotes autonomy, leaders provide support without exerting control and demand accountability without creating fear.

What is an autonomous team?

Workplace autonomy extends not only to individuals but to teams as well. Many companies are now organising their employees in autonomous teams. An autonomous team is one that manages itself with minimum supervision and interference. It makes its own decisions, including the handling of daily tasks and responsibilities and the creation of work processes to complete those tasks. Unlike a traditional hierarchical structure, a flat autonomous structure is considered more beneficial because team members build on each other’s strengths while compensating for weaknesses. Team autonomy encourages each member to be a self-starter rather than a passive participant, leading to an open exchange of ideas and opinions, healthy competition, and seamless collaboration and communication.

Autonomy – it’s what everyone wants

Why is workplace autonomy so important? Well, for one, it’s what the people want.

In a 2021 hybrid work study, 5,000 knowledge workers from five countries were asked about their work arrangement preferences. Of the respondents, 77% said they would like to work for a company that gives them the freedom to work from anywhere while 61% said they would like management to allow them to come to the office when they need to and work from home when they need to. Knowledge workers – as defined by business consultant Peter Drucker, who invented the term 'knowledge work' in 1959 – are workers who apply theoretical, analytical and other high-level knowledge, which they have acquired through training, to develop products and services. Accountants, engineers, programmers, financial analysts, and scientists are some examples of knowledge workers.

However, it isn’t just knowledge workers who prize autonomy in the workplace. When Gartner interviewed 5,000 workers and 77 HR leaders for its 2021 EVP Employee Survey, close to 50% of the employees who were not knowledge workers said they wanted greater control over when, where, and how much they work.

Furthermore, proving that money isn’t the only workplace motivator, 59% of the respondents in the hybrid work study picked ‘flexibility’ over salary and other benefits while nearly half of the 1,246 respondents in a global 2019 PwC study said they would gladly give up a 20% raise for more control over how they work.

7 advantages of an autonomous team

Team autonomy is an asset to individuals, teams, and the organisation as a whole:

1. Motivated, engaged employees

Employees with autonomy show greater involvement in and ownership of their work. This improves their motivation and engagement, not only with their everyday tasks but also with their organisation. Engaged employees are more willing to repay their employer’s trust with their best work and best ideas. Employee engagement is directly linked to productivity, performance, employee retention, and revenue growth. This is why it is a top priority for organisations – with 80% of the executives surveyed by Deloitte rating it as ‘important’ or ‘very important’. The survey also mentions ‘meaningful work’ as a key driver of employee engagement, adding that two elements that make work meaningful are autonomy and empowered teams.

2. Healthy, happy workforce

Employees feel a greater sense of fulfilment and satisfaction when they are allowed to work at their own pace and by their own rules. With the lines between personal and professional lives blurring today, being happy in your career is crucial for your emotional and physical wellbeing. Having the freedom to pick your own schedules and set your own performance goals reduces stress. Employees who believe their employer genuinely cares about their wellbeing are 71% less likely to experience burnout and 69% less likely to search for new employment, says Gallup. This is crucial given that employee burnout levels remain high and workers are still quitting in droves in the aftermath of the pandemic. When a workplace prioritises its workers’ wellbeing, employees are three times more likely to be engaged at work and five times more likely to express trust in their leaders.

3. Skilled teams

In autonomous teams, each member has the opportunity to confidently express their ideas and thoughts. This freedom of expression and thought is crucial to fostering creativity and innovation, without which individuals and organisations cannot evolve, grow, and be competitive. As self-starters, autonomous employees are used to taking critical decisions on their own and coming up with solutions when problems arise. Through trial and error, they improve their decision-making and problem-solving abilities and develop resilience – much valued skills at a time when employers are struggling to find skilled talent. Furthermore, to work cohesively in a team, members need to communicate effectively, which improves their skills of communication. And because they are accountable for their actions and driven to making achievements, autonomous teams show a greater leaning towards skill development and self-improvement. The end result is a strong, skilled workforce resilient and agile to changes and challenges.

4. Culture of teamwork

It goes without saying that team autonomy leads to a culture of teamwork where members share responsibilities and information. A team culture is vital to improving collaboration and cooperation and building trust and support. A tight-knit team has a better understanding of tasks or situations, is adept at experimenting with new ideas and improving on them, and learning from each other.

5. Improved retention

For employers, their top motive for pushing autonomy is perhaps to stop employee turnover, which in the United States is predicted to jump 20% in 2022. A high rate of attrition is a financial nightmare. On the conservative estimate that replacing an employee costs up to two times their annual salary, Gallup says that US businesses lose $1 trillion a year to people quitting their jobs. And it’s not only about the money. Losing your most talented employees can have an impact on productivity, hurt morale and customer experience, and more. When a 2021 McKinsey survey asked participating employees what their top reasons for quitting were, 54% said they didn’t feel valued by their organisation while 51% said they didn’t feel a sense of belonging. Autonomy is the obvious solution to this problem as it has the power to make employees feel appreciated and empowered and instil in them a sense of belonging as well as loyalty towards the organisation. It is natural for people to want to work in a place that respects their choices, supports their freedom, and utilises their skills.

Beating the Great Resignation requires effective skills management. To learn how, read our blog here

6. Higher productivity

The more motivated and engaged your employees are, the more achievement- and goal-oriented they are likely to be. Autonomy gives them the freedom and courage to pursue new ideas and be creative and innovative. Unlike employees who take every little cue from their bosses, autonomous employees and teams aren’t afraid to go after what they want. When employees are always thinking of how they can do better, it naturally leads to a boost in productivity. And when entire teams show such a growth mindset, the burst in productivity extends to the entire organisation.

7. Leadership development

Autonomy allows individuals to be free thinkers and go-getters and show their strengths and skills. 

It drives decision-making, problem-solving, conflict management, and resilience, which are all qualities that are inherent in leaders. An autonomous workplace is, therefore, an incubator for developing future leaders. An effective succession plan is an urgent requirement for organisations today due to an impending retirement wave – 10,000 Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are set to reach the age of 65 every day till 2030 in the US alone, according to the Pew Research Centre. When employees have autonomy in the way they work, the leaders among them will naturally come into prominence. By combining autonomy with regular opportunities to lead, employers will have a clear picture of who their future CEOs, managers, and mentors are.

How to create autonomous teams

Transforming an organisation full of individuals into efficient and autonomous teams takes some effort. Here are some simple tips to get the process started:

  • Allow mistakes. Instead of blaming and admonishing a team member for a miscalculated move, hold them accountable for their actions but also encourage them to use the experience as an opportunity to learn and improve. Nobody is perfect and mistakes are a part of the learning curve. As a boss or co-worker, you must ensure your team mate’s creativity and initiative is not lost to their fear of being blamed.
  • Set clear goals. Autonomy does not mean working without guidance. Management must provide clear goals and benchmarks for every project and task, no matter how small, so that the teams know exactly what they need to deliver. While the team is free to set their own goals on how to approach the project, the end objective must be communicated clearly and in advance so that there is no confusion. Instead of micromanaging the work itself, managers can provide support by helping their teams to regularly review and monitor their progress against those goals.
  • Reward good work. This is as important as holding team members accountable for their actions. When you acknowledge a job well done, the message goes out that autonomous thinking is not only encouraged but also rewarded. This will inspire your team members to work even harder and achieve more success – for themselves and for the company.
  • Give support. While managers and leaders should largely step aside and allow their teams to work at their own pace, they must pitch in with support and advice whenever required. Micromanagement is a creativity killer and causes unnecessary stress. On the other hand, blind faith and a hands-off approach are a recipe for diasater. Good leaders know how to strike the right balance by providing guidance whenever their team shows signs of struggling and returning to the sidelines once the team is back on track.
  • Support learning and professional development. Supporting a learning culture and investing in your employees’ skills development is a great way to promote autonomy in your organisation. The payoff is an improvement not only in your staff’s ability to work autonomously but also in your overall employee skills database. With their upgraded skills inventory, you can help your employees chart new and exciting career paths within the organisation. In return, you’ll reap the rewards that highly skilled, productive, and agile teams bring to the table.
  • Get feedback from your employees. Pushing for autonomy in the workplace is one thing, but it’s equally  important to check if it is working for everyone. Like any other workplace transformation, switching to autonomous teams takes some getting used to for the individuals concerned. And it’s impossible to get the team dynamics right from the get go. Managers and leaders can send out surveys and questionaires asking employees for their honest opinions on how they would like to be managed and how they can improve their team autonomy. After all, workplace autonomy is all about encouraging free expression and thought, and regular feedback is an integral part of that process.

Visit MuchSkills, a skills management platform with expertise in building highly efficient autonomous teams. To know more about the process, click here.

How much autonomy is right?

According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, total autonomy is counter-productive. It leads to overconfidence, which in turn results in a fall in performance. In the study, teams that were given some amount of autonomy showed better results than those with full autonomy and those with no autonomy. The lesson here is for employers and team leaders to think critically about the decisions that are best left to their teams and those that would benefit from their direct supervision. As there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this dilemma, leaders must experiment with ideas and policies until they are absolutely clear about the amount of autonomy that can bring the best out of their teams. As we mentioned earlier, autonomy makes room for mistakes and takes those mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve.

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