How to Create Workplace Autonomy Without Sacrificing Leadership

by Elizabeth Dukes on December 9, 2015

Based on research and anecdotal evidence, there’s no denying workplace autonomy promotes employee happiness. A workplace survey by Gensler concluded that employees given more choices are more satisfied and higher performing than counterparts with fewer freedoms. Autonomy often inspires a culture of innovation, and allows employees an opportunity to become more self-sufficient. For executives, this means less time overseeing daily operations and more time focused on strategy and growth. But for a company that still hasn’t shifted to an autonomous environment, the idea of giving employees so much freedom can be a little unsettling.

people-coffee-tea-meeting.jpgWithout traditional management in place, how can you ensure employees are productive and efficient? How can you stop team members from taking advantage of these liberties and becoming lazy? At what point does autonomy become anarchy?

The good news is there is a happy medium between total autonomy and autocracy, and many of the most successful business are thriving in this sweet spot. Today, we’re going to talk about how you can find your workplace autonomy happy place without employees running amok.

Provide Freedom in Varying Degrees

As a leader, you have the ability to grant privileges to employees as they prove they’re capable. In other words, don’t make it a free-for-all right out of the gate. Perks such as flex hours and working from home may need to wait until after an employee has proved they can get work done on time without being monitored—and it’s up to you to judge when they’ve reached that level.

Let’s say you have an employee who has been with the company for several months, consistently meets deadlines and excels at all tasks without supervision. Let’s say you also have a new employee who still has many questions and is not yet completely comfortable with the work flow. You can’t expect both employees to succeed with the same amount of autonomy, but over time, you can increase their amount of freedom.

Ensure Employees Understand Specific Requirements

Some things simply require hard-and-fast rules. For example: guidelines surrounding regulatory and compliance issues, risk-mitigation, harassment and other legal concerns. When it comes to these issues, there are no gray areas and no “choice.” Many executives cite these areas as the reason why they’re afraid to grant employees too much freedom.

However, after completing the requisite training on these topics, most intelligent and capable professionals know how to conduct themselves, and their work, without putting the company at risk. It’s your responsibility to provide your employees the tools and information that empower good decision-making. And if you can’t trust someone to make the right choice, they may not be a good fit for your business.

Establish Accountability

hands-people-woman-working.jpgWorkplace autonomy doesn’t mean employees don’t have to answer to anyone—it simply means they have the ability to work when they want and how they want. Many autonomous workplaces operate by the rule, “as long as the work is done well, and on time.” In other words, you may provide your employees the option to work remotely as often as they’d like, unlimited vacation days and flexible hours so long as it doesn’t impact the timeliness or quality of their work.

Accountability must be established early. Employees should fully understand expectations and what happens if they fail to meet them. To keep your team on track, implement project management software, shared calendars and real-time collaboration tools. This way, everyone is kept abreast of their role within a project and there is a way to track what went wrong in the event something slips through the cracks.

Offer Both Parameters and Choices

While accountability can help keep employees on track, though, not every workplace can allow employees total freedom over when and where they work. For example, organizations in client services need to operate under the same business hours as the customers they serve. Additionally, some jobs must be performed on-site. How can businesses with this type of company culture offer autonomy?

To best method is to set parameters where necessary and offer choices wherever possible. For example, require employees to be in-office for client meetings but allow them the option to work remotely at all other times. Or, instead of requiring employees to formally request time off from management, set the expectation that all work must be done on time and allow teams to coordinate scheduling among themselves.

Utilize Technology

Startup.jpgWhile many business leaders see technology as a threat to authority, it’s actually a useful tool that reduces the need for traditional administrative processes. Here are a few examples:

  • Time-tracking software. This allows employees the ability to track time spent on various tasks, and provides management visibility into whether employees have too much or too little on their plate, what’s threatening efficiency and helps team leaders better estimate how much time a project may require.
  • Room reservations. Instead of writing their name on a whiteboard, employees and teams can reserve rooms for meetings and executives can review occupancy in real time. This way you can check in on what your teams are up to without micromanaging.
  • Instant communication platforms. Business leaders worry that autonomy will impede communication, but with tools like video calling and instant messenger, all team members are always just a few keystrokes away.

Instead of fighting technology, use it to your advantage. But make sure to set ground rules and processes to ensure technology is used appropriately.

Autonomy is quickly becoming a norm. Employees not only desire greater control over their work style and environment—they expect it. By exercising the above suggestions, you can help create a culture of freedom and choice without sacrificing efficiency, productivity and structure.

Keeping up with workplace trends and employee expectations isn’t always easy, but we can help. Download our free eBook, Wide Open Workspace, to discover modern solutions that align with your organizational goals and culture.


Elizabeth Dukes

Elizabeth Dukes' pieces highlight the valuable role of the real estate and facility managers play in their organizations. Prior to iOFFICE, Elizabeth was in sales for large facility and office service outsourcing firm.

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