March 5, 2023
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.
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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Transforming an organisation full of individuals into efficient and autonomous teams takes some effort. Here are some simple tips to get the process started:
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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