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Harnessing the power of autonomy in the workplace

An increasing number of studies suggest that increased autonomy leads to greater job satisfaction, increased wellbeing and enhanced creativity. How, then, can businesses promote a more autonomous workplace?

Research conducted by CV-Library in 2018 revealed that more than half of the British workforce are unhappy in their jobs. A similar piece of research in the US conducted by The Conference Board suggests that 49% of the American workforce feel the same. Meanwhile, Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE are languishing at the bottom end of the Global Workforce Happiness Index — despite being some of the world’s wealthiest nations.

At the same time, the UK is undergoing a productivity crisis. In 2016, output per person in the UK was 15.4% below the G7 average, while Britain recorded its worst productivity performance in five years in 2018. Though some commentators attribute this to aspects such as bad management (and indeed, this is often a major issue), there is another reason why the economy is experiencing sub-optimal performance: a lack of autonomy.

Autonomy improves employee engagement

Autonomy is one of the key pillars of ensuring engagement and allowing people to perform at their best.

In 2017, research by the University of Birmingham’s Business School (exploring employee engagement) revealed that people with higher degrees of autonomy reported higher levels of overall wellbeing and higher levels of job satisfaction.

Despite this, many businesses are still hierarchically structured, with strict oversight of every task performed within teams, and managers are often measured in this way when they work in large organisations.

It’s therefore little wonder that many business’ productivity performances are decreasing. With organisations finding it harder than ever to attract quality talent, smart businesses are placing more emphasis on engaging and developing their current team members so that they don’t leave for pastures new. A big part of this is facilitating autonomy.

Of course, galvanising autonomy in the workplace does not mean giving up complete control to others — a common worry and misconception.

In a well-run business, clear guidance from management — especially around goals and outcomes — is essential. Rather than monitoring individual tasks, in an autonomous workplace, it’s outcomes that matter, not outputs.

In such an environment, people are given greater freedom to harness their intrinsic motivations to develop creative ways to complete projects and achieve targets. Not only does research suggest that people will be happier, but greater autonomy also benefits a business’ bottom line.

Higher levels of happiness reduce attrition and make the workplace a more attractive proposition for new hires.

The (potential) negative effect of having too much autonomy

Though the studies show that increasing autonomy is good for business, in some exceptional instances, it can have the opposite effect — especially when mismanaged.

For autonomous organisations to be successful, they need to establish clear, defined goals for teams to work towards. This relies on effective management, clear lines of communication between different teams within an organisation and alignment between team goals and the overall strategy of the business.

The adoption of internal communication platforms (such as Workplace) certainly makes this easier, as does organisational culture based on promise management.

But it’s active communication, effective management across all teams, and a clear policy that allows people to know they directly contribute to the overall business strategy.

Why trust is so important to autonomy

Trust is foundational for flourishing workplaces, especially those that encourage autonomy.

If businesses don’t trust employees at work, the effect is damaging. Micromanagement becomes the norm, employees are constantly assessed and managers end up controlling every aspect of people's working days.

Businesses need to trust their teams to deliver outcomes, giving them the autonomy to reach those goals in their own unique, creative way. They need to say “we trust in your abilities to perform the role and deliver good business outcomes that are aligned with our culture and strategic and financial goals.” Without building trust, true autonomy cannot exist.

How to promote workplace autonomy

Encourage mistakes

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.”
Bill Gates

Mistakes are important for development, so organisations that punish people for making mistakes create an environment where people are terrified to take risks. For autonomy to flourish, people need to be able to test, fail and learn.

The phrase “fail fast, fail often, fail forward” has increasingly become part of business lexicon, especially amongst startups and tech executives. Organisations of all types can promote this — not only to increase autonomy but to achieve better business outcomes.

Create effective boundaries

Freedom of choice is an essential component of autonomy, however, and clear boundaries need to be in place for autonomy in the workplace to be effective.

Rather than judging people on the amount of time spent on tasks, reviews should be related to the overall outcomes of projects. Within this framework, people have the freedom to be creative in a cultural and strategic context to achieve optimal results.

Facilitate ownership

Ownership is essential to unlocking people’s intrinsic motivations. When someone is given the autonomy to own projects, they feel their work is as much theirs as it is the business’. This approach gives the autonomy and freedom necessary to drive creative change; it also helps to develop expertise — developing people’s experience and skills.

Creating space for autonomous growth through ownership within an organisation leads to happier people, reducing attrition and building a loyal workforce that is willing to go to great lengths to ensure a business’ success.

Recruit the right people

For some people, working autonomously can be a scary prospect, especially those used to a strict, structured environment. When making new hires, this means an autonomous, self-driven mindset should be high up the list of requirements — especially for more creative roles.

Recruiting people who are experts in their field or bright emerging talents and allowing them the space to take risks, try out new ideas and innovate can allow businesses to develop new products, build better processes and increase the chances of retaining the best talent long-term.

The takeaway

Though autonomy in the workplace appears on the surface to be a condition that primarily benefits people’s happiness, it also benefits businesses.

Today, we are operating in an increasingly competitive talent market, and so recruiting people is becoming increasingly complex.

The retention of talent within a business should now be a strategic goal for all businesses. By harnessing the power of autonomy in the workplace an organisation can develop a more engaged, motivated workforce that is loyal to the company — reducing attrition costs and ensuring that the best talent doesn’t flock to pastures new.

At Impellam, we employ people who care about what they do. Through our Virtuoso programme, we develop our people so they have the right skills and experience to do their job by being experts in their field. Crucially, Virtuosity provides a framework that allows individuals to make bold, transformational promises and senior management to support them.

Ultimately, we trust people to make the right decisions, collaborate and deliver on their promises. To learn more about The Impellam Way and Virtuoso culture, click here.

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