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Autonomy: an essential for employee engagement
Image by Jimmy Foulds

6 min read

Autonomy: an essential for employee engagement

Employees are the heart and soul of an organization. When they’re genuinely engaged at work and allowed to work autonomously, they can drive performance, solve tough problems, and build up a strong company culture.

According to a Gallup report, only 33% of the US workforce are engaged at work. This percentage drops to 15% if we consider the worldwide population. That's more than three-quarters of the global workforce feeling disconnected from their work.

That’s why leaders need to take all necessary steps to build up a motivated and engaged team. And autonomy is a great way to start.

In his book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us", Daniel H. Pink talks about how having skills and a purpose for work motivates employees. But these two factors are not enough if workers don't have the freedom to get their job done. Pink stresses that autonomy is one of the critical factors that drive engagement at work.

In this article, we’ll focus on the role of autonomy to improve employee engagement.

What is autonomy?

Autonomy means having the freedom to work in ways that allow you to perform your best. It’s based on the fundamental understanding that individuals work differently.

That’s the core reason why leaders should give employees the responsibility to figure out what works best for them. It will empower employees to take the initiative and drive their own problem-solving.

So long as they execute the job, do it on time, and to the expected standards, it’s up to them to decide how to carry it out and plan their days accordingly.

But does this mean leaders should back off entirely?

Absolutely not.

Leaders have an essential role to play while ensuring autonomy at work. They need to properly communicate their expectations from the employees and ensure that employee behavior aligns with company values. Also, they have to support employees in providing the necessary tools and equipment.

Misconceptions about autonomy at work

To understand better what work autonomy actually entails, let's look at what it’s not:

  • Autonomy doesn't mean working with no rules or having free reign. It’s about working under broad but clear guidelines. To give autonomy, employees must understand the relevant processes and stakeholders involved.
  • Employee autonomy does not mean chaos or unpredictable work outcomes. Instead, it’s about sharing what needs to be done and then giving them the freedom to decide how the work could be done.
  • An autonomous employee doesn’t necessarily work alone. Instead, they simply work in ways that bring out the best version of themselves, be it in a collaborative setting or individual setup.

Autonomy is essentially the opposite of micromanagement, which is the excessive supervision of employees' work, signifying a lack of freedom and trust in the workplace. In many cases, this is a core reason for disengagement and poor employee satisfaction.

Relationship between autonomy and flexibility

While we are talking about autonomy, we can relate it to having a flexible approach towards work.

Let’s take the following example to understand these related terms:

You provide a flexible schedule to your employees. They can work at any time of the day or from any place. So, yes, they are indeed autonomous to a particular degree.

But let’s say they don’t have the freedom to try new ideas, nor do they have any real decision-making power. That means their autonomy is limited.

Having a flexible work schedule is an important stepping stone towards autonomy, but leaders should further empower them. They need to have more control and flexibility over how they do their work—employees experience a boost of self-worth and individual value when they’re able to make critical decisions.

How does autonomy improve employee engagement?

Autonomy is based upon human psychology's concept of self-determination, which refers to a person's ability to make choices and manage their life. It has a significant impact on morale, well-being and directly impacts motivation.

When you provide autonomy to your employees, chances are they step up and become more emotionally invested in their projects as their sense of responsibility increases. You’ll even see them start taking the initiative and develop better creative ideas to solve problems. As a result, employee autonomy directly impacts an employee’s commitment to work quality and induces a sense of purpose.

Benefits of autonomy at work

There are many reasons why it is rewarding to encourage employees to act and think independently. You see, when employees get the freedom to work in their own way, they become motivated to work well. They want to show what they’re capable of, and engagement levels naturally rise.

An Effectory study shows that 79% of autonomous employees are more engaged than employees who lack autonomy. In addition, when employees feel trusted, they carry a stronger sense of responsibility for their work and are more likely to stay at a company longer. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report found that a highly engaged workforce can reduce the turnover rate by 25-59%.

Moreover, if no one micromanages every move, employees are more likely to think outside the box. They’ll have more creative freedom in approaching their work with an increased sense of ownership. As a result, they’ll develop new ideas, going above and beyond to solve challenges. For example, Twitter, Gmail, and Unsplash were actually side projects that employees developed out of their own initiative.

How can leaders encourage autonomy at work?

For leaders, it may sound scary to give your employees complete responsibility for their duties. But when done in the right way, it can reap great benefits for the business and the overall employee experience.

However, before taking the necessary steps, leaders need to understand that there’s no single standard framework for enabling employee autonomy. Some employees naturally work better under supervision; others excel when they’re given freedom. Leaders can gauge the amount of guidance needed by familiarizing themselves with unique workstyles through regular check-ins and dedicated 1-on-1 meetings. It all comes down to communicating and learning about individual needs, letting employees grow in their own ways.

Of course, it’s helpful to establish clarity on employee autonomy. Consider collaborating with colleagues to define the boundaries of control and independence within your team.

How to bolster engagement with autonomy

1. Build a culture of trust

A culture of trust is one where all parties are comfortable with sharing ideas and collaborating with one another. If you don’t trust your employees, you’re more likely going to micromanage and doubt the capabilities of others. A lack of trust is almost always evident in behavior, affecting morale, productivity, and engagement.

To build a culture of trust, you can start with actions like:

  • Consult your employees about processes and task management.
  • Encourage new ideas from everyone.
  • Allow regular two-way feedback and evaluation.

2. Establish the right communication touchpoints

Genuine autonomy at work depends a lot on the appropriate communication framework. After all, if you don’t communicate your vision before giving freedom to your employees, you can’t expect their work to align with your values.

  • Clarify what you expect out of your employees.
  • Communicate your trust through regular meetings to monitor the progress of tasks and give them timely feedback.
  • Make communication two-way by enabling your employees to voice their opinions.

3. Recognize employees efforts

People like being appreciated. It reinforces to them that their contributions are being noticed and are valued. That’s how they’re more likely to continue doing great work and grow their skills. To encourage autonomy at work, try celebrating and rewarding autonomous employees who excel.

  • Celebrate employees’ progress, from personal development to small wins.
  • Provide regular, timely, and meaningful appreciation for their efforts. It could be one-to-one or in a social setting.
  • Explore different ways to deliver recognition, from a simple “thank you”, a personalized note, or special shout-outs on your company intranet.
  • You can also give benefits and bonuses to motivate them further, like an extra day off.

4. Allow flexibility in work schedule

You see, every individual has their own way of working. There’s likely a mix of early birds and those who are much more productive during the evenings in your team. Letting your employees choose their schedules is one of the best ways to encourage autonomy at work.

As an aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, a hybrid workplace is imminent. This is why flexibility should also extend to the location of work. Workplaces that support employees working from the office work and remotely will soon be the norm.

Try taking the following steps:

  • Provide them with an office environment suitable for safe, engaging, and effective collaboration.
  • Keep remote work opportunities open.
  • Leverage video conferencing and virtual workplace tools to ensure better communication and collaboration.

Conclusion

To encourage genuine autonomy, nobody should be forced to work in a single rigid way. Instead, spend the time to understand how much guidance and touchpoints would help employees in their day-to-day routines. The less you control your employees, the more engaged they will be. And the higher the engagement, the more value you get out of them.

Autonomy is not about fitting individuals into one-size-fits-all paradigms. Instead, it’s more about enabling employees to choose and explore the ways they think will work the best for them.

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Anjan Pathak

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