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The future of employee autonomy: The experts weigh in
March 1, 2022

The future of employee autonomy: The experts weigh in

Research shows time and time again that when employees feel empowered at work, it leads to stronger job performance, job satisfaction, and commitment to the organization.

Even when employees have managers that are empowered, studies have shown that they were more likely to be considered highly creative. They’re also more likely to generate novel ideas and help others in the workplace, volunteer or extra assignments, and be willing to support outside of their official capacity. Companies like Google and 3M have found that providing autonomy has been a key factor in empowering their employees. As a leader in your organization, how do you build employee autonomy while keeping everyone on task and on the same page?

What is employee autonomy? 

The easiest definition of employee autonomy is a focus on giving employees the freedom to decide how, when, and where they do their work. It’s an acknowledgment that team members will have different work styles or be more productive at certain times of the day and in different environments.

So, as long as work gets done on time and meets standards, individuals can decide what works best for them. It’s a fairly radical expansion of personal responsibility in the workplace. This allows teams to empower individual members by adapting workflows and communication styles to build trust and improve collaboration throughout the organization. The results can be pretty remarkable.

Take for example Patagonia, the popular outdoor sporting goods retailer that is routinely on the list of best places to work in America. When asked why Patagonia is a great workplace, employee autonomy is one of the most frequently cited reasons.

However, the way employee autonomy is framed there is very specific. Employees at Patagonia can make their own schedules — no, seriously! Yes, everyone must work full-time and get all their work done, but employees can decide when and how they work (be it 5 AM or 5 PM). 

With effective planning, discipline, and smart management, an employee can build a life that prioritizes time for their passions: Hiking, skiing, or simply spending time with the family. In return, that employee is happier and more fulfilled when they log in to their work email every morning. In the words of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard: “Let my people go surfing.”

Encouraging autonomy in the workplace

True believers of old-school delegate-and-discipline management principles may bristle at the idea of building autonomy among their employees. 

However, true leadership isn’t standing over your employees while they work — it’s about empowering your team to become leaders in their own right. Autonomy is a key ingredient in the growth of a promising new hire. But how do you build autonomy in a sustainable way? By setting smart goals and clear guidelines for employees to follow.

Since 2004, Google engineers have been given free rein to spend 20% of their time pursuing projects of their own creation that align with core passion and purpose. Everyone from senior-level developers to entry-level hires can play around in their own sandbox, searching for their next great idea. 

That seems like a lot of time to “throw away” to side projects, but these explorations have turned into some of their most popular products: AdSense, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth, and more. By setting some basic guidelines — 20% of your time — and providing management oversight and advice, Google allows creative engineers the room to let their imaginations change the world.

How has employee autonomy changed after COVID-19? 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has transformed many of the rock-solid understandings of what an office job is. Countless companies that would never consider a remote team or hybrid flexible schedule now have first-hand experiences to draw conclusions from. For many, there’s no turning back from here.


Having worked from home for nearly two years, workers have become accustomed to having more control over when and where they work. Now that they work remotely most of the time, many have established routines that are more productive. They’re taking advantage of time not spent in rush hour traffic to cook, exercise, or unwind with the family. They are logging into their email earlier, finishing up projects faster, and striking an appropriate balance of work and private time. As a result, big innovators like Google, Facebook, and Twitter now allow employees the choice of where to work indefinitely.

The result is a new understanding of trust in the workplace. As Shauna Geraghty, the VP of global talent acquisition at Talkdesk, puts it: “If you can’t establish trust and delegate, then you can’t empower employees … It's a bi-directional process of trust and accountability. Both parties have to trust each other and hold each other accountable.”

Many employers were originally hesitant to allow for so much freedom and flexibility for fear of lowered productivity, but it seems productivity has stayed largely the same (if not better). As more employees return to the office, their bosses are looking for ways to allow for continued flexibility with the hopes of maintaining the spark. To accommodate new workplace habits, many are moving their operations to forward-thinking, hybrid-friendly office spaces that can scale up or down to meet changing employee needs. 

How do you help build employee autonomy? 

Employee autonomy is all about answering the most important questions for your workforce. Many of those are questions of location, while others are related to communication and technology. Here are some tips to help get you started:

Where — The big question most companies now face is where to house operations. New flexibility means that many workers can do their job from anywhere, be it a coffee shop or the kitchen table. Be open to a newly remote workforce and let people find their footing.

A physical office hub should cater to the changing needs of employees by providing spaces that are suited for different work tasks (private rooms for focus work, social work hubs for collaborative sessions). It doesn’t hurt to provide some amenities that an employee may not have access to at home. Fast WiFi with a strong, consistent signal can be reason enough to come into the office for important client calls or meetings.

When — Breaking out of the 9-5 is exhilarating for employees, but it creates anxiety for managers who need to coordinate meetings and plan for workflows. Establishing a timeframe when workers are available to respond to emails or Slack messages (based on the schedule that works for most people on a team) cuts down on the missed connections that create headaches. 

How — The ability to try out new methods has increased engagement and creativity and led to increased corporate performance. Don’t hesitate to change up assignments or take a different approach to tasks. New approaches to design and process or a new addition to your tech stack can transform the way your teams stay connected. 

Conclusion

Offering flexibility for team members can be a win-win for everyone. Employees want a flexible workspace that allows for hybrid working and comes with the amenities they can’t find at home — communal workspace, free snacks, even an on-site gym. Their employers want a space that is amenable to growth and doesn’t cost them money when it isn’t fully used. 

Fortunately, innovative office space providers like The Square in Houston are designed with flexible work in mind. Located centrally to make for easy commuting, the Square combines tech-savviness with a distinctively human touch that is influenced by the best of both worlds.

See what the future of work looks like firsthand. Contact the Square today.