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How to build greater autonomy at work

How to build greater autonomy at work

While most managers recognize micro-management is bad for business, few have put strategies in place to actively support its solution: work autonomy. And yet, most of us – 79% according to one study – have experienced the pains of having too little autonomy in the workplace. As expectations of what we want from our jobs and employers develop, so too does our desire for greater autonomy. Here’s why building greater autonomy at work should be a top priority for every company – and how to practically go about it.

The importance of autonomy at work

Autonomy, in its simplest definition, is the urge to direct your own life. It’s something we want in both our professional and personal lives, but having autonomy at work (or not having it!) has taken on a pressing new meaning. Autonomy in the workplace isn’t just about managing our actions – it’s about choice; to be able able to choose and actually create our options.

The importance of autonomy in the workplace can’t be minimized. It has a knock-on effect on productivity, creativity and the quality of work produced, as well as work satisfaction and workplace trust. Without the ability to control what, when, and how we work – and even who we work with – we’ll never be fully motivated to complete a task... Nor will we want to stay with a company for very long. People simply won’t invest in a workplace that doesn’t respect their ability to manage their own professional space.

In our new era of “employee experience”, people expect to feel empowered at work. They want to feel valued and have a sense of ownership. If they don’t, most will simply up and leave. And where people feel oppressed and unhappy, neither promotions nor pay rises will fix the problem. In fact, one study found that people were two and a half times more likely to take a job that offered more autonomy than more influence.

Building autonomy in the workplace

Even if increasing employee autonomy is already high on your priority list, how do you actually go about it? Clearly, autonomy is something that is felt individually, so employees must develop it themselves to a degree. But what can managers do to practically encourage and support that self-awareness? The following four strategies are an essential place to start.

Let employees create their own schedules

Companies who pride themselves on their innovation and “freshness” know that the 9–5 is dead. Clinging to outdated ways of working not only shows you’re behind the times, it communicates an inflexibility of thinking. It traps people into a restrictive work pattern, instead of giving them the space to create a schedule that best suits their productive focus and life outside of work.

We’re all different, and while some of us perform best early in the morning, others don’t start running on full power until after lunch. Having control over your time and being able to decide when you work is one of the best – and easiest – ways to build greater autonomy at work. So offering employees greater flexibility to design their own weekly schedules is a great place to start.

Give employees the tools to master their performance

If you trust your employees, you’ll want them to be able to improve on their own terms as well as yours. One way to improve employee autonomy is to give encourage greater self-management – to help people figure out where and how they can improve by themselves. But you need to actually invest in employee-led tools to help them get there.

Time tracking are a no-brainer here. Automatic ones like Timely and Dewo provide useful insights into the ways you actually work – like how long you spend on different types of work, where you lose focus, where workflows hold you back and when you are most productive. You can then apply these insights directly to construct a better schedule and track how you perform against it to measure how you did. Giving people the means to better understand how they work communicates you trust them – that they ultimately are the master of their own space.

Allow employees to work where they want

We’ve already acknowledged that employees should be able to create their own schedules, but this type of autonomy also extends to deciding where to work. If employees need to stay in the office, consider whether you are providing a good range of environments to support their work – both collaborative and quiet options. If they don’t, consider offering remote opportunities so employees can work where they feel most focused and engaged – whether that’s from home or from their favorite local coffee shop.

With the pervasiveness of video conferencing and professional instant communication apps, our working worlds have become borderless. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that almost every non-client facing company can adapt to remote work, and as companies start to reopen their offices, more employees will be looking to secure long-term remote opportunities.

Offer employees creative autonomy

Beyond allowing people to decide when, where and how they work, autonomy is also about granting people creative freedom. It’s about letting people own their own ideas, developing their own objectives and having the confidence – or security – to try new approaches. Giving people space and encouragement to explore new ideas allows them to tap into the personal values that inspire their work, and from a creative perspective they’ll feel empowered.

It might sound fluffy, but there are load of ways you can put this into practice. Set aside certain times of the week or month that your team members can spend working on whichever project they wish – and maybe consider giving people an entire day each week to work on whatever company project they want. Similarly, protect time for skills development – whether that means keeping up-to-date on research within your niche or having the space to get to grips with a new software. Ultimately, you want to make self-development a regular individual exercise, instead of something that management touches once a year and crystalizes into meaningless “goals”.

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