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Do Employees Want More Autonomy Than Ever?

by Alison Jones / July 15, 2022

The COVID behavioral experiment is one that will certainly be analyzed for years to come. Although it was not conducted intentionally, individual responses to COVID have become a laboratory for studies and observations on human behavior, interactions, personality traits, and societal norms. As a student of psychology and an organizational planning consultant, I am doubly intrigued by human behavior and how it exhibits itself in the workplace, especially after a defining event with the magnitude of COVID. In this blog, I’d like to focus on the impact COVID has had on the human need for autonomy in the workplace. Next week I’ll cover some suggestions for what managers can do to recognize this need and to respond appropriately in the workplace.

Reassimilation Lessons Learned from Schools

 Before talking about the workplace, though, let’s talk about schools. Why? Because I think the lessons learned upon the return of students to schools during COVID can be roughly translated to the workplace.

As with the workplace, schools had to respond quickly to the onset of COVID. Most schools began distance learning in March 2020 once the virus reached, well, pandemic proportions. Students and teachers quickly pivoted from in-person learning to virtual instruction, similar to the way employees quickly pivoted to telework. Many students went a full year or more with minimal supervision, authority, or accountability, apart from what the teachers could provide virtually. Students could roll out of bed at 7:40 AM for a 7:45 class (ask me how I know).

Over time, students returned to either hybrid, in-person, or full-time virtual instruction. And teachers, in turn, returned to classes filled with students who exhibited vastly different behaviors, attitudes, and needs than they had exhibited prior to the pandemic.

While it is impossible to generalize differences across students, the massive shift in where and how students learned and got their work done during COVID has influenced today’s educational setting. Depending on the age of the student and the type of environment and experience they had while schooling from home (e.g., clarity of rules and expectations, parental support, engagement by teachers), students developed new habits and new ways of learning from home – for good or bad. And they brought many of these new ways back to the classroom upon their return.

According to one of my teacher friends, she and her colleagues noticed that younger students exhibited more “learned helplessness” and struggles with social integration. Another teacher reported that high school students appeared “lazier” and more dismissive of authority. There were also reports of increased behavioral issues and disciplinary actions in the months following the return to school, possibly due to the social isolation and sense of anxiety and loss brought about by COVID.

As I spoke with teachers, a common theme emerged. They all said, in different ways, that the pandemic had affected human functioning at a level that required new strategies to help the students integrate back into the learning environment. They all believed that to try to force all the same pre-COVID policies, methods, and expectations on the students would be a futile, and ineffective, battle. Instead, teachers found themselves coming up with innovative and individualized ways to meet the students’ varying needs. Their ultimate goal remained the same - to create the best learning environment possible, for everyone.

While the issues encountered by teachers varied and differed by age group and location, one thing is clear. The world at large – and each student’s individual world – had fundamentally shifted and would never be quite the same. This shift certainly spilled over into the classroom. And I believe it has absolutely spilled over into the workplace too.

The Growing Need for Autonomy in the Workplace

 Unlike students, many employees who shifted to telework due to COVID still have not fully returned to the office – and may never do so. There has been less of a push to get employees back to work full time due to the many benefits of telework as well as the evolving COVID variants and rates of infection. I believe that this lengthened period of time working from home will cause the new patterns of behavior and expectations surrounding work to become more fully entrenched. Working from home wasn’t a one-month or even a one-year shift. It is a prolonged arrangement that has led to a widespread change in the way of living and doing business.

So what does this mean for the workplace?

I believe it means this: as with students, the fundamental world of employees has changed and will never be quite the same. The same policies and tactics that worked pre-COVID may not work in this new reality.

I believe one of the main shifts is that workers want, and will continue to want, more autonomy than ever. And managers will need to come up with new strategies for allowing increased autonomy while maintaining the same high standards as prior to COVID.

Working from home allowed people to do one or more of the following:

  • Work during the hours they prefer (e.g., early bird v. late riser)
  • Personalize their home office setting
  • Attend to important personal matters during the day, such as doctor’s appointments or home contractor visits
  • Strike a better work-life balance (and focus more on wellness overall)
  • Manage their workflow in a way that made sense to them
  • Take more initiative on certain tasks – i.e., without a supervisor there to lean on

AdobeStock_421822920Stretch Break While Working from Home

Many employees have been the boss of their own time, to some degree, for years now (of course this varies from one organization to the next). And in a general sense, this autonomy equates to freedom. Employees who have tasted freedom for an extended time are not likely to embrace anything that feels like their freedom is being restricted.

Perhaps the greatest indication of this growing need for autonomy is that employees want to be able to determine where, when, and how to get their work done. As part of a hybrid working study conducted by Harvard Business Review, almost two-thirds of the global workforce reported that they would not take a position that requires them to work in an office full time. The Great Resignation has also shown that people are willing to quit a job that does not align with their sense of personal freedom and fulfillment. This trend has only grown since the onset of COVID.

Organization Needs v. the Need for Autonomy

 On the flip side, organizations have needs. There is the need to produce quality work. There is the need to collaborate. There is the need to manage resources effectively, and for many organizations this includes office space that may be sitting largely vacant.

Whether your organization has fully returned to the workplace, is still allowing full-time telework, or has adopted an arrangement in between, I suggest that you consider individual needs for autonomy and how you can support this need while still meeting your organization’s needs. To attract and retain your best talent is going to require a new way of thinking and of doing business. As my teacher friends learned, trying to force the same pre-COVID policies, methods, and expectations on employees would be a futile, and ineffective, battle.

In next week’s blog, I’ll dive a little deeper into the benefits of a culture that supports autonomy, and I’ll suggest some ways you may be able to support your employees’ needs for autonomy. At the end of the day, while COVID presented many obstacles and challenges, it also presented opportunities to evolve what may have been an outdated approach to managing employees. After a rough two years, we need all the silver linings and lessons learned we can get!

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Alison Jones

Alison Jones

Alison is a senior consultant with a master’s degree in organizational/industrial psychology and a certification in change management and coaching. She enjoys reading, fitness, travel, and the beach.