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Autonomy in the workplace

One of the biggest lessons in the workplace through the pandemic was that people will do their jobs from home when you are not watching over their shoulders. Shocking to many bosses was the idea that people are self-motivated and will work without prodding or watching. Employers learned that in trying to maintain the watching or control over employees would mean that people would choose to go elsewhere where they could have the flexibility and autonomy to work. We learned that people would overwork themselves and overachieve while working from home. So why, as employers and bosses, do we still not give people autonomy?

I have many clients that still do not have enough leash. They feel they are being scrutinized, watched, controlled, and micromanaged. Why is giving employees autonomy so difficult for bosses?

In a study done by Harvard Business Review, 61% of employees reported that they would prefer flexibility but that flexibility is conditional upon autonomy. People want to be the driver of their own lives. Within the framework of self-determination theory, entrusting employees with greater autonomy can lead to greater satisfaction, fulfillment, and engagement at work.

There is no greater obstacle to trust in the workplace than micromanagement and overly abusive control. What the pandemic showed us was that people are more self-motivated that we believed possible. That people want to choose and not be told when and where to work.

Rules and regulations are stifling creativity, innovation, and teamwork. That unnecessary pressure adds to the volume of stress on employees and lower motivation and productivity.

Our workplace history has been typically rigid and authoritarian. We tell you what to do and you do it. I decide where and how you work best, and I tell you and you do it. These ideas are antiquated and have been in much needed change. Global organizations have had great success in virtual work for decades, but until the pandemic, it had not been mainstream. Now, many organizations are implementing flexibility as a main recruitment tool. It is working.

Employees are taking and keeping that right to choose. Monitoring software feels intrusive. Forced days in the office removes autonomy. Employers are trying to get back in the driver seat and are paying the price for it as many people are resigning to find more flexibility and more autonomy.

Bosses need to let go of the wheel. Consensus on goal setting and productivity would be a good place to start. Accountability is king, but it looks different than it did 30 years ago, or even 5 years ago. I have a client that uses “inspired accountability” as a pillar and standard for the workplace. Know your job, know the company’s standards, know your expectations, know your team.

If companies spent more time communicating expectations and setting goals together, how much easier would autonomy be?

Letting go isn’t easy, but it's necessary in our changing workforce environment. It is essential to build trust and establish positive psychological safety.

As a boss, take a step back and look at policies. Just because it’s always been there doesn’t mean it still needs to be. Just because it's how you did it, doesn’t mean it's how they should do it. Take a rooftop view of policies and procedures and see where things can be lifted and shifted. Ask your people, existing and new hires what they want and need. What gives them freedom to be more productive?

It all starts with positive intent. If I assume that my employees want to use their gifts and talents to the fullest and achieve company goals, then why not give them the freedom to do just that?

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