Which would you choose? An 8% pay rise, or 2-3 days working from home? In the post-lockdown workplace, there is growing research to show that what employees want is flexibility. In fact, some reports suggest that workers value working from home just as much as an 8% pay increase (p. 8), if not more for specific industry workers. This flexibility of being given the ability to decide where and when employees do their work is enabled by encouraging what is called “autonomy”.

What is autonomy in the workplace?

In the European Journal of Business and Management, Dr Aziz Ozkoc describes autonomy as “employees’ level of authority and freedom to choose how they will perform their work”. This may include flexible work hours and offering people the option to choose where to work in a way that best fits their lives. Autonomy can also be encouraged in more subtle ways, whether that’s letting people freely decide when to take a coffee break or being able to duck out to go to appointments and making up for that time later. 

Why is autonomy important?

Fostering autonomy at work is crucial for developing a good workplace culture and a psychosocial environment in which employees thrive. Research has consistently shown that those of us who have greater autonomy to choose which projects we work on, and to carry out tasks as we see fit, are more productive and experience higher levels of job satisfaction. When leaders give their teams control over their jobs, this drives intrinsic motivation, increases ownership of outcomes, and improves overall performance. Another by-product of autonomy at work is that it facilitates trust, which is linked to psychological safety. There is also a strong relationship between our productivity and improved wellbeing, as personally satisfying work enhances positive moods.

What happens when we aren’t given autonomy at work?

While we may be hearing a lot about workplaces giving their employees flexible working arrangements, such as adopting hybrid work models, not all workplaces can afford to do so. This is especially true for many front-line workers whose types of work allow little freedom over delivery methods and locations. Many of them have been working relentlessly throughout the peaks and troughs of the COVID era, leading to risks of a vicious downward spiral, where low autonomy exacerbates poor wellbeing at work.

Take “Brent” as an example (not his real name). Brent has been working as a full-time call centre employee, as part of the COVID inquiry team throughout the pandemic. He’s given a rigid work schedule that is the same for every workday, has a specific script he must follow and is consistently micromanaged by his manager to ensure he meets his tasks and outcomes. With Brent’s limited amount of job control and influence over work tasks and methods, he has become increasingly stressed and unable to cope with the high call demands from customers. This ongoing stress throughout the pandemic has resulted in poorer health outcomes for Brent, as he experiences greater fatigue, difficulties sleeping, and symptoms of burnout. Ultimately, poor work design and management of psychosocial risks in the workplace can lead to a range of negative psychological and physical outcomes. 

So, what can we do to encourage autonomy and promote greater wellbeing at work?

  1. Consult and communicate with your team regularly. Generating discussions around what level of autonomy your employees desire, and what type of control is best for them, may help give them a range of options and choices, without being restrictive. Asking questions such as, “How can we make this project more intrinsically motivating for you?” may help generate personalised ideas on incorporating autonomy into their work.
  1. Determine activities and tasks within a role that can be flexible. Where some roles seem to have limited control over goals or methods for reaching those goals, try brainstorming with your employees about what aspects of the task can be executed with flexibility and autonomy. For example, client-facing roles may seem inflexible due to the need to be readily available, but tasks such as how they respond to inquiries can be done in a way that suits the individual.
  1. Foster a culture of trust. Building mutual relationships between leaders and employees based on trust are essential for creating a psychologically safe environment for your team. This culture of trust empowers employees not to be afraid to make their own decisions, share ideas, and openly discuss their roles and responsibilities.
  1. Give employees an opportunity to give feedback. As each employee is unique, it’s important to seek feedback on what works for them and how they would like to include autonomy in their role. Checking in on your employees frequently on how their levels of autonomy are tracking over time is important to gain insight on whether further improvements could be made to boost employee engagement.
  1. Allow for experimentation. Giving employees the opportunity to “play” with different ways of carrying out a project is key, whether that be a change in location, what their work schedule looks like, or finding a new method that works best for them. For example, consider offering space for employees to explore new approaches on how to accomplish a goal. This could be done by asking your team questions such as, “How do you want your workday to look?” or “What environment allows you to work most effectively?”

So, “Brent” might suggest he works from a different location for part of his week, or a different shift, if that’s possible. The “micromanagement” by his manager could be replaced with some other ways to track tasks (that he and the team suggest and then trial), to reassure the manager the tasks are completed, without over-checking. A presentation from another section of the pandemic response group could help Brent and other call-centre staff better understand the flow of information and their vital role in it, and also brainstorm with the other section how to improve that flow. Despite Brent being in a low-autonomy role, having these opportunities to discuss and experiment with tweaking his work and work methods is enough to create a greater sense of control over his job. 

Although workplace autonomy will look different for every organisation, openly exploring options for adding greater autonomy in the workplace is key to empowering your employees – leading to a happier, more intrinsically motivated, and more productive workforce.