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Five Ways Managers Can Embrace the Need for Employee Autonomy

by Alison Jones / July 22, 2022

Work-life balance may seem like a fairly modern concept. But the truth is that employees have been fighting for work-life balance for many, many years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when manufacturing was the primary industry, the focus was on reducing the number of hours worked as the average manufacturing employee was logging 100 hours per week. The influences and circumstances may have changed over time, but employees have always sought to find that elusive balance between bringing home the bacon and actually being home to enjoy the bacon.

Advances in technology over the last 25-50 years have certainly changed the conversation about where and how work can get done, and COVID has shined the light on these issues. Millions of people transitioned to telework during the pandemic and found that they quite liked the arrangement. They now feel that there’s no need to schlep into an office to do the same work that could easily be done at home.

For those organizations that adopted aggressive telework policies during COVID, a natural outcome of this is that the dynamic between supervisor and employee has shifted. Many employees now desire to be more autonomous, or self-governing, than they were prior to telework. While individual needs for autonomy vary (i.e., some people have a higher overall need for autonomy than others), most employees who teleworked during COVID became more independent in their workstyle and grew accustomed to the increased autonomy. After all, once autonomy is experienced, it is difficult to have it taken it away.

The Rise of the Hybrid Office 

As more and more offices have begun to bring employees back into the office, the hybrid office has emerged as the primary telework model. In the hybrid office, employees split their time between in-office and remote work. This certainly seems to be the best of both worlds – time in the office to connect, collaborate, and take care of duties that are best handled in person. The rest of the time can be spent working from home, presumably in peace and concentration.

As this hybrid model continues to take root, managers must come to terms with the corresponding shift the hybrid office brings to the way employees work and to the management dynamic overall. Employees may be autonomous and highly productive at home one day, and closely supervised with a higher number of distractions in the office the next day. It can be challenging to bounce back and forth from home office to central office. Employees may be frustrated and some may even resent feeling that someone is “looking over their shoulder” when they are in the office.

Benefits of Supporting Employee Autonomy

The good news is that high-performing employees who have a corresponding high need for autonomy tend to be more driven, goal-oriented, ambitious, and hard-working than their not-as-autonomous counterparts. While it can be difficult for managers to adjust to this heightened need for autonomy – especially for those who tend to micromanage – there are many benefits to supporting employee autonomy. Here are just a few:

  • Employee autonomy increases employee morale – for those employees who desire autonomy, the trust that goes along with increased autonomy helps to boost morale. Employees who have this need tend to feel stifled if micromanaged and empowered when they are given more autonomy.
  • Employee autonomy is a strong intrinsic motivator – entrusting an employee with more flexibility and control over their own workflow can help motivate an employee to take more ownership of their work. This, in turn, generally leads to greater productivity and higher work quality.
  • Supporting employee autonomy helps attract and retain the best talent – the hiring and employment landscape has changed, and employees and job candidates alike are placing greater demands on their terms of employment. As I mentioned in last week’s blog on the increasing need for employee autonomy, studies show that almost two-thirds of people surveyed say they would not consider a job that requires a full-time in-person presence. Creating a culture that is supportive of telework will go a long way in attracting and retaining your top performers.

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Employee Autonomy Helps Attract and Retain Top Performers

Ways to Support Employee Autonomy

So, if you are a manager, what can you do? I believe you can look for ways to support individual needs for autonomy while still making sure that quality work gets done. Below are some suggestions for ways you and all managers can be proactive in recognizing and responding to individual needs for employee autonomy.

Recognize Individual Differences in the Need for Autonomy

Some people have a higher need for autonomy than others. While some people are content to “follow the leader,” others crave the opportunity to have a say and to make decisions on their own. Managers need to be sure not to paint all employees with the same brush. Talk to your employees and learn what they are looking for when it comes to their work schedule, work environment, and work responsibilities.

Modify Managerial Style Based on Need for Autonomy

Because some employees crave autonomy while others crave frequent direction and oversight, no single management style fits everyone. As with parenting, while the same rules apply to each child, the approach to each varies. Be sure to provide the amount of direction and feedback needed by individual employees, and adjust the approach as needed so that all employees feel valued and supported.

An employee with a high need for autonomy may need work assignments that are more self-directed. They may also thrive on tasks that provide the opportunity to take on additional responsibility, to stretch their skills, or to contribute at a higher level.

Above all, be sure to manage by results and to address any performance issues as needed – for all employee types.

Allow Schedule and Location Flexibility

Instead of dictating set hours and schedules, allow for some flexibility so that employees can select the schedule that works best for their workflow and lifestyle. For example, some people like to hit the gym in the morning and amble into the office at 9:30 AM. Others would rather hit the ground running and start work at 6:30 AM. Unless the business requires customer interface or nonstop collaboration during business hours, does it really matter if everyone is in the office by 8:30 AM, or could you allow some flexibility?

One way of doing this is to set core business hours. For example, everyone must be in the office between 10 AM and 3 PM, but how each employee fits in eight hours is up to them. Some may work 7 AM to 3 PM while others may work 10 AM to 6 PM. Perhaps there could be a shared online calendar to assist with schedule coordination.

Also, as these example hours suggest, perhaps there should not be a mandatory half-hour or hour for lunch. Unless employees need to step away to eat lunch, most jobs can be done while munching on lunch. You can help support an employee’s need for autonomy by allowing them to decide if they need a lunch break or would rather keep working to shorten their time in the office.

Also - could employees be allowed to choose which days to work from home, within certain parameters and as long as the work gets done at the level desired?

Provide Multiple Space Types in the Office

Providing a variety of spaces within the central office can provide choices for employees who desire autonomy. The simple act of choosing where to work during the day can help these employees feel empowered and motivated.

Also, not everyone works well in an open setting where conversations can be overheard. Similarly, not everyone works well without the energy of others around them. And different tasks may require different settings. By providing areas for quiet concentration as well as areas for collaboration and team-building, you signal to your employees that you trust them to choose the setting that will help them best get the job done. This is a huge win for an autonomy-driven employee, which means it’s a huge win for you, too.

Recognize Seemingly Unrelated Autonomy Cues

Those with a high need for autonomy may tend to challenge the status quo. Or they may make innovative suggestions that seem far-fetched. Such employees may resist feedback, or pursue a course of action without fully vetting it first. These different expressions of the need for autonomy can be seen as a challenge to authority and a bucking of the traditional way of doing business.

If you are struggling with these issues in your workplace, ask yourself if the need for autonomy may be driving the behavior of one or more employees. Then consider ways you can help meet an employee’s need for autonomy in ways that also support the organizational culture. It may just be that the ornery employee who has a lot to say has extremely valuable insights and may become even more committed to the organization (and less of a thorn in your side) if they feel valued and heard.

Will You Embrace Autonomy?

I admit that I may be projecting a bit in this blog. I have a high need for autonomy and have worked extremely productively in a home office for almost 25 years. I know the sense of ownership I take over my work and that I will always strive to get the job done, even if it sometimes means a 4 AM start. I also know all the extra hours and effort I have put in because of this need for autonomy coupled with my high work ethic.

But I also know I’m not alone. There are many other teleworkers and hybrid office workers who need autonomy like they need air to breathe. These are often the ones who will work their fingers to the bone to get the job done – and done well.

The future belongs to those who can anticipate and embrace change. And there is no doubt that the nature of how employees perform their work and what they need on a personal and professional level is changing.

So, manager, I have one question for you.

Does the future belong to you?

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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.