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Libby Marks

Autonomy at Work: Why Freedom is More Valuable Than Flexibility

Why savvy employers are looking beyond flexibility to employee autonomy, to unlock the potential of their people and business.

In the current dialogue around the future of work, flexible working has become synonymous with people-centric work practices.

But flexibility isn’t the be-all and end-all. If you've implemented flexible work schedules, that's a great start. But it isn't ‘job done’.

The demand for flexible working is a symptom of a wider need emerging in the wake of the pandemic. Employees desire more control over every aspect of their working life - not just where and when. 

What employees are really looking for is autonomy. And employers that fail to provide it will miss out in a competitive landscape - both in terms of business outcomes and the global battle for talent. 

Much as we welcome the current focus on flexibility, we think flexibility is the icing on the autonomy cake. And in some organizations, autonomy is still underbaked. At Runn, we encourage autonomy for every employee - and we reap the benefits. Here's how you can too.

What is autonomy at work?

Autonomy at work is about giving employees more freedom, accountability, control, and choice in their working lives so that they - and you - can unlock their full productivity and potential. 

Despite the recent focus on flexible working, it’s about much more than that. It relates to how much authority employees have to make decisions and act without direct supervision. And it spans everything from where and how people choose to work, to what they work on, when they do it, and how they deliver.

It is characterized by trust in individuals’ abilities to do a great job without needing direct supervision at all times. Within agreed boundaries, people have the authority to make decisions, solve problems, and deliver their duties based on their own initiative and expertise. And often at their own preferred pace and place of work. 

Put simply, it is the opposite of micromanagement. Here’s how low-autonomy and high-autonomy workplaces compare.

What autonomy at work is not

Autonomy at work has a strong focus on freedom and choice, so it’s understandable that people might mistake it for flexible working. Actually, flexible working is just a small part of the picture. Employee autonomy isn’t just about the ‘where’ of people’s working lives but also the what, when, how, and why.

Nor is it simply about letting staff ‘do their own thing’. That could easily descend into chaos and confusion 🙈 It’s about creating a culture where people are empowered to deliver great work that aligns with company strategy. It isn’t about an absence of management but about managing in a different way.

Examples of employee autonomy

You’ll find lots of generic ‘examples of autonomy at work’ lists online. So we’d rather share an example of employee autonomy from our own organization, Runn. 

At Runn, we believe happy people do the best work. That’s why we’re committed to creating a pro-people culture that helps us attract the best colleagues and support them to do great things. Granting employee autonomy plays a big part in that. Here are a few examples of what we do differently.

Full flexibility over working hours

Our team works remotely all over the world so sticking to 9-5 working hours makes no sense. We operate an asynchronous culture which means people can choose their working hours to suit their personal needs. Whether that’s slotting around the school run, taking timeouts to mentally recharge, or choosing hours that suit your body clock. We’ve put numerous systems in place to make sure this runs smoothly and work still gets done in a timely way. 

Choice over what to work on

There’s work that NEEDS to be done in any business. But who needs to do it? The person whose job role it traditionally sits under? Or the person who really wants to sink their teeth into it? We know we get better results when people can choose their projects. So once we know what’s in the pipeline, we share it with the team and see who wants to do what. Then we use our own Runn software to schedule tasks, distribute work equitably, and make sure everything’s manageable. 

Dedicated learning days

Learning might not seem like an obvious example of employee autonomy. But at Runn it is. We want passionate, engaged people bringing their A-game to our projects. So we give people a day a month to pick something relevant to learn about. We set guidelines - it has to be relatable to work - but apart from that, people can pick whatever excites them. It’s a great way to bring new knowledge and skills into the team and gives our people chance to fit some self-development into their busy lives.

Tim Copeland, Founder & CEO of Runn, had the following advice to share about implementing flexible working schedules.

The best advice I’ve ever received about implementing flexible working is to embrace radical flexibility by giving people as much autonomy as possible. Amid the chaos of the past few years, some companies have really doubled down on legacy practices in an attempt to retain a sense of control. But we’ve gone in completely the opposite direction - and it’s working.’

The way we do things at Runn, working hours and locations are totally determined by the individual, and they can be constantly adjusted based on their needs and commitments outside of work. It’s our belief that this sort of radical flexibility makes for happier, more engaged staff, but also leads to levels of productivity that are the envy of any legacy company.’

Also read: How Runn Builds Healthy Teams (Interview)

Other examples of autonomy at work

🏠 Choosing where to work - Whether that’s home, office, coffee shop, or even exploring the world as a digital nomad. Autonomy means focusing on productivity, not place.

🕒 Deciding when to work - Everyone has different demands on their time. Or times of day when they’re more productive. Autonomy leans into that for better work-life balance and focus at work.

⌛ Setting their own schedule and deadlines - Deadlines can be unavoidable - but they can be arbitrary. Instead of telling employees what a deadline is, where possible, trust them to set their own.  

🤔 Making their own decisions - Delegating decision-making is the heart of autonomous working. Empower employees to make their own well-informed decisions, rather than being spoonfed by a supervisor.  

✏️ Designing their own processes - Established processes can help people do things the right way. But what about when they get in the way? Autonomy means letting people adapt and use processes that work for them. 

🛣️ Leaving their lane - Encourage people to think big and be brilliant. Foster a culture where there’s no such thing as a bad idea and see what ideas flow. 

🏋️ Picking their perks - Everyone’s different so why are company benefits so same-y? Give people a choice of rewards to work towards, so they’re motivated by something meaningful to them. 

The power of autonomous teams

We’ve seen the power of employee autonomy firsthand at Runn. People are engaged, creative, and happy. And that means Runn is productive, innovative, and successful. Let’s look at five top benefits of giving your employees autonomy at work. 

1. Employees are more engaged 

Autonomy improves employee engagement.

You might think that people should be engaged at work simply because they’re getting paid. But money is a surprisingly poor motivator. Money - and other benefits - are extrinsic motivators. They come from outside. But what really motivates people are intrinsic motivators. What comes from within. Like the pride and job satisfaction from overcoming a challenge or achieving success.

If you deny your people autonomy, you also deny them that intrinsic motivation. They can't feel any ownership of their work because they're just following orders and toeing the line. For knowledge workers especially - who make a living by their creativity and expertise - this can be soul-crushing. They’ll disengage from their work and eventually leave your business.

On the flipside, if you reward that intrinsic motivation, you’ll enjoy higher employee engagement and all the benefits that brings - like productivity, innovation, and retention.

Research conducted by Queen’s Centre for Business Venturing/Aon Hewitt found that companies with the most engaged team members had 26% lower employee turnover, 20% lower absenteeism, and 15% greater employee productivity.

2. People are more productive

A certain fear motivates micromanagement and presenteeism. The fear that people won’t work hard if they’re not constantly monitored and managed. But as we’ve just learned, most people are intrinsically motivated to work when they’re trusted and empowered to do so. 

People are also more likely to be productive when they enjoy better physical, emotional, and mental well being. Burnout is the scourge of professional life. An occupational phenomenon where long hours and high workload erodes employees’ health, professional capacity, and productivity. Until they snap. 

Employee autonomy is the antidote to this corrosive culture. It allows employees to balance work and life by choosing when, where, and how they work. By letting them determine realistic deadlines and manage their own schedules. And by collaboratively dividing work across the team to ensure a balance of what’s interesting (and what’s unavoidable!)

Most importantly, employee autonomy gives individuals more control of their own lives. Something that we all need, especially in an otherwise uncertain world.

3. Decisions are faster… and often better 

Autonomy at work means employees have the authority to make decisions for themselves within pre-defined boundaries. 

Decentralized decision-making is a flatter, faster process. Instead of employees referring decisions up the chain of command and waiting for approval, they have the authority to make them themselves. This can reduce the time it takes to solve a problem to minutes instead of - potentially - days. This means fewer bottlenecks and greater agility to respond to opportunities.  

Not only is this quicker, it can also result in better decision-making, especially in the knowledge economy. Knowledge workers are hired for their professional expertise and often know more than their managers about the specifics of their work. So it makes sense that they should make decisions within their purview. Rather than having to explain - often complex - matters to senior staff, to help them make a decision about something they may not really understand.

As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said, ‘It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’

4. Creativity creates competitive advantage 

Organizations that deny their employees autonomy stifle creativity and innovation. They create a culture where employees are discouraged from thinking for themselves, solving problems, or looking for new ways to do things. Employees are expected to follow protocol, wait for instructions, and stay in their lane. 

This type of organizational discipline does make sense on one level. It maintains proven processes, productivity and profitability. But it also maintains the status quo. It doesn’t do anything new. And when your competitors are innovating and advancing around you, standing still is the same as falling behind. 

Autonomous employees, on the other hand, are expected to think, find solutions, and challenge how things are done. They’re given creative freedom in a culture where experimentation is encouraged. This can lead to new ways of doing things - like faster processes or new product features - and create a competitive advantage for your business. 

McKinsey includes employee autonomy in its discussion of agile organizations, describing how 'clear accountability paired with the autonomy and freedom to pursue opportunities, and the ongoing chance to have new experiences' creates agility and entrepreneurial thinking.

5. Autonomy improves employee retention

Creating a culture where your people are happy, engaged, creative, trusted, valued, and respected reduces voluntary staff turnover. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Happy staff sticks around. But many organizations still treat their staff as expendable resources and then wonder why they're experiencing such a high cost of employee turnover.

At Runn, we’re happy to say that no engineer has ever left our development team. We attribute that to our pro-people culture that emphasizes positive work-life balance and employee autonomy.

Of course, it isn’t enough to just retain employees. You also want to develop them and see them progress throughout the company. And that’s the other good news about autonomy in the workplace. It develops leadership qualities you’ll need in the future - like independent thought, problem-solving, and decision-making.

As Simon Sinek said, ‘When we tell people to do their jobs, we get workers. When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders.’

How to break free from old management practices and encourage freedom

Creating an autonomous environment requires a pivot away from top-down hierarchies and toward the bottom-up organization. Instead of managers directing every detail of how projects are delivered, they set expectations and boundaries, then let the team or individual decide how to execute.

Cultivating workplace autonomy is a conscious cultural choice. It doesn’t just happen. You can’t simply relax oversight, delegate decision-making, and expect success. You need to build a culture where autonomy at work works. Here’s how.

establishing autonomy at work

Communicate the bigger picture

For autonomy to work, employees need to understand how they contribute to the bigger picture. If your team is just focused on the day-to-day duties in their job descriptions, they never have the opportunity to question or innovate.

But if they’re engaged in the wider context of the organization - the direction of travel, the company vision, and strategic objectives - they’re more able to bring their imagination and expertise to bear. That increases employee engagement and stimulates new ideas.

Strike the right balance

Employee autonomy is a balancing act. It isn’t an autocratic control of employees’ every move - that leads to disengagement and stagnation. Nor is it a laissez-faire free for all - that’s the fast track to disorganization, confusion, and overwhelm. It’s the sweet spot somewhere in the middle. 

To facilitate this, senior leaders need to adopt a democratic leadership style that sits somewhere between the two. 

  • Seek opinion and set direction (overarching objectives, deliverables and KPIs)
  • Establish guardrails (for example, what decisions employees can make themselves)
  • Provide tools and resources for employees to execute successfully 
  • Schedule regular check-ins and catch ups
  • Get out of the way - but be available if needed 

Set clear KPIs

Autonomous employees need to know what’s expected of them and how they’ll be judged on their work. That means setting clear KPIs for people to work towards and keeping them accountable. Managers should establish KPIs at the start of any project and ask people what resources they’ll need to achieve them.

KPIs, by their very nature, encourage autonomy because they’re goals to work towards rather than individual tasks. For example, increasing the number of leads your company generates, reducing abandoned e-commerce carts, or increasing satisfaction with your latest game release. 

With KPIs established, it’s important to judge people on their results and not on other factors like being present at the office or talking the loudest on Teams. It’s also important to acknowledge great work as positive reinforcement for autonomous work well done. 

Ensure visibility into work and skills

When people can choose their own pace and place of work, it does get harder to know what everyone’s working on. But that is absolutely key. You need to know that people are optimally occupied, engaged with their work and that their workload is balanced and manageable. 

Resource management software gives managers a way to plan work and share it out equitably, allocate resources to new tasks, and monitor progress toward goals.

The central resource pool - which details all employee skills and experience - also helps surface expertise that you might not realize you have in your team. So you can provide more work that aligns with their interests and ambitions, promotes skill development, and increases job satisfaction.

Create psychological safety and trust

Autonomy is about trust. Not just managers trusting employees to work diligently and independently. But employees trusting their managers to treat them fairly. 

Trusting that they won’t be judged negatively if they choose to work from home, turn down a certain project, or make a decision that doesn’t work out. 

Managers need to create a culture of psychological safety where people feel able to enjoy all of the benefits of autonomous working without risk or penalty. For example, an analysis by Gartner, reported in Harvard Business Review, highlighted that 64% of managers believe people who work from the office are higher performing, and 76% believe in-office workers are more likely to be promoted. These beliefs need to be culturally disavowed and challenged for people to have true autonomy over their work.

To encourage people to think innovatively and make confident decisions, you also need to craft a culture where blame and bad ideas don’t exist. When people know they can freely suggest ideas without fear or ridicule - and make decisions without recrimination - they’ll feel empowered to contribute more. 

[These are all key elements in creating a healthy team more generally.]

Communicate clearly and regularly 

Autonomous employees might work independently but they should never feel abandoned. Regular communication is key, regardless of where they’re working. Schedule regular 121s to check in with direct reports, as well as weekly team meetings too. 

Make sure your team knows that you’re always available for any advice or guidance they need. But discourage dependency on you for decision-making and direction. Coach them to develop self-reliance and reach their own conclusions when appropriate.

Remember, autonomy isn’t right for everyone

We’re all different. And while autonomy might work for some people, it isn’t right for everyone. Some people prefer a more rigid structure and rules to work by. Too much autonomy can leave people confused and unsure.

As a manager, you should tailor your approach according to individual needs. And the best way to determine those is to ask people. 

  • Do they enjoy working independently or prefer guidance? 
  • How much direction feels comfortable for them?
  • How often would they like you to check in?

Giving people the opportunity to tailor how they work - to suit their individual needs - is at the heart of the new pro-people approach to business.

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