Why Employees Crave Autonomy

Do employees want flexibility? It certainly seems like it. Isn’t that why remote and hybrid work are so popular? The short answer to both of these questions is yes. However, there’s more to all of this than this singular, strikingly obvious assumption.

Yes, workers want flexibility, but that’s just a small representation of what they really crave. Workers truly want autonomy, and they will choose employers who give them that at nearly every turn.

Flexibility has Multiple Meanings

When workers talk about flexibility, what do they mean? For some workers, flexibility means being able to choose the hours they work each day. Others want to be able to decide whether they will work from home or come into the office. 

While different workers are seeking different things when they talk about flexibility, it’s clear that there is one universal desire. Workers want the autonomy to decide when, where, and how they work. It’s so important to them that lack of independence contributes to the great resignation.

Employers Frequently Miss the Point

Unfortunately, many employers are focusing too much on flexibility without understanding the need for autonomy. For example, an employer might mandate a return to the office but offer workers an opportunity to work from home one day each week. 

To the employer, this may seem like a generous offer of flexibility. To the employees, this simply seems like a mandate that gives little consideration to their ability to determine when they need to be in the office to be productive or not.

In the end, workers don’t simply want flexibility. They want the autonomy to be able to truly use that flexibility in ways that suit their needs and allow them to reach their work-related goals.

Why Should Brands Give Workers Autonomy?

Autonomy leads to self-determination, and that is the greatest motivator there is. It even tops extrinsic rewards. Workers who have autonomy are more motivated, engaged, and loyal than those who don’t. They are more likely to feel a sense of ownership over their work.

This consideration doesn’t mean that other factors like salary, benefits, and professional development aren’t important as well. They absolutely are, for practical reasons, if nothing else. However, it does explain why most workers list autonomy as a higher priority than salary.

The Relationship Between Autonomy and Flexibility

To better understand how flexibility and autonomy relate to one another, consider this hierarchy with an example included in each:

Low Flexibility and Low Autonomy

Employees are told when and where to work, generally in the office full time.

Some Flexibility and Low Autonomy

A limited amount of flexibility is given, but the organization controls exactly how that is executed. Workers can’t fully choose where they work from.

Medium Flexibility and Medium Autonomy

There are mandated days in the office, but the employee can select which days these are. They must work from a designated remote location.

High Flexibility and Medium Autonomy

Working remotely is mandated, and workers can choose where they work.

High Flexibility and High Autonomy

Workers are allowed to work remotely from any location they choose. They also have full access to the office and may work there when they decide it is necessary.

Flexibility increases with autonomy, but more flexibility doesn’t create more autonomy.

Currently, the most popular arrangements seem to be some flexibility and medium autonomy, and medium flexibility and medium autonomy. This approach seems like it strikes a balance between the needs of the organization and the needs of the worker. 

The problem is that autonomy is so attractive that companies may need to consider it less of an employment benefit and more of a necessary factor in recruiting and employee retention.

How can Employers Give Workers More Autonomy?

There are steps to empower employees and give them as much autonomy as possible.

Turn Directives into Best Practices

When it comes to remote and hybrid work, many employers use directives. For example, a company might dictate that workers be at the office Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays but can work from home or within 25 miles of the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

To turn that into a best practice, that directive might be written as follows:

“Employees are encouraged to consider the duties that are specific to their jobs as well as current projects. Then, they should make a thoughtful determination if they will be more productive working remotely or in the office. Additionally, some workers may find it necessary to work in closer geographic proximity to the office.”

Provide Tools and Technology to Promote Autonomy

Employers must consider what their workers need to smoothly transition from remote work to office work and provide them with those tools. Workers with autonomy will have access to devices that allow them to work in multiple locations. 

They will be able to communicate and collaborate using tools like Slack. Depending on the nature of their work, they may even need duplicates of software installations or even peripheral devices such as headsets.

Invest in Employee Development and Competence

An employee who doesn’t have the skills they need to be successful is going to struggle even more when they are given autonomy. Businesses often use this struggle as an excuse to limit autonomy across the board. 

In reality, that lack of competence isn’t a sign that autonomy is a bad thing. Instead, it shows that the company hasn’t invested enough in professional development.

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