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How to Maximise Autonomy at Work: Guide for Success

Company Culture
October 17, 2021
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A study of 20,000 workers, by researchers from the University of Birmingham found that employees who reported having higher levels of autonomy at work were more engaged and more likely to have a sense of job satisfaction and wellbeing. 

Let’s take a look at why this is the case, as well as how wellbeing tools and platforms can support autonomy at work, and in turn, employee wellbeing, happiness, and retention.

What Does it Mean to Work Autonomously?

Autonomy at work refers to the level of freedom that your employees have while performing their work responsibilities. There are many ways in which autonomy at work can be achieved (which we will touch on shortly). 

Autonomy ultimately translates to freedom. Therefore, autonomy at work may look like granting employees the right to choose when they want to work, where they want to work, and how they want to work. Even more granularly, this could mean that they get to decide the order by which they complete tasks or even the pace at which they fulfill duties. 

In essence, it also means that micromanagement gets removed from the picture. But, don’t worry – it does not have to remove the transparency necessary to keep a business running smoothly. Communication and accountability still exist. 

However, rather than watching over employees’ every move, granting autonomy at work will mean that employees gain ownership over what they do and how they do it. By having a sense of ownership over their work, employees feel more happy and motivated to perform well.

How Does Autonomy Improve Engagement at Work?

The correlation between autonomy at work and engagement at work can easily be understood once you dig a little into human nature and psychology. When people have a sense of control and ownership over what they do, then they have feelings of pride, responsibility, and value. 

Ultimately, a sense of autonomy at work will create an environment in which employees are more motivated, and thereby, engaged in what they are doing. With the freedom of choice, employees know that the decisions are in their hands, which will maximise their sense of purpose. 

Employees have authentic feelings of being personally invested in their roles, which increases team morale and job satisfaction. Perhaps, the old adage of “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life” can be reworked to ring true: “If you love what you do, you’ll wish to continue working every day of your life.”

What Does Employee Autonomy Look Like?

Since autonomy means something different for everyone, there’s not a single correct framework by which to implement autonomy at work. Instead, it comes down to each individual’s needs and desires. 

To deploy employee autonomy across an organisation, it is advisable to review the organisation’s structure and set a framework across the organisation. Then enable that framework to make adjustments depending on the employee or team to allow for greater flexibility.

By understanding how your team approaches their work and thinks about their job, you can better understand the type of autonomy they seek or will benefit from most. 

Once employees have gained their sense of autonomy, you can see how much more motivated and productive they will become because they are happier doing the work they have always done. By using a wellbeing tool to understand employee mood, it’s now possible to measure the impact of changes such as autonomy on your organisation. 

If you were to think of a typical workplace with hierarchy, it often goes that the lower-level employees require more oversight and management, and the higher you move up the pyramid, the more autonomy that exists. 

To achieve autonomy in the workplace, consider spreading that sense of freedom that often coincides with the top of the pyramid to every person within your organisation.

Employers still get to maintain control over the business goals and outcomes, but employees have the freedom to choose how they achieve it.  Continue reading to learn about some examples of how to achieve autonomy in the workplace. 

What are the Benefits of Autonomy at Work?

Granting autonomy at work results in a multitude of benefits that can span from the employee to managers to stakeholders, and even to the customers. 

Let’s take a look at what you can expect to achieve with autonomy in your workplace. 

1. Employee Satisfaction

Employees are naturally happier when they get to make their own choices regarding the work that they are expected to do. 

Whether this means choosing to work from home or the office, logging in early in the morning or later at night, etc., autonomy results in increased employee satisfaction. The more satisfied your employees feel, the more they actually care about the customer and business goals and the better their performance. 

2. Decreased Turnover 

Piggybacking off the above point, when employees feel happy at work, they have less reason to leave. In fact, the number one secret to employee retention comes down to employees’ emotional wellbeing and sense of job satisfaction. 

Interested in knowing where your employees stand in this regard? Consider utilising a wellbeing tool within your workplace to track the mood of your teams. 

3. Increased Creativity

Freedom breeds creativity of thought and action. At the heart of any innovative product or service sits creativity. So, a more autonomous workforce can have the potential to result in better business practices and outcomes. They have freedom to try new approaches and enables a more entrepreneurial culture.  

4. Boosted Leadership

Employees who have the power to manage themselves get the chance to hone important leadership skills, such as: time management, accountability, problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication. 

All of these qualities will prime your employees to continue to evolve and get better with each day. It also frees up the time for management, as employees self manage themselves more, leaving more time for leaders to focus on strategy. 

Also by building employees skills in this way, you can hire within your organisation for promotions rather than having to spend time, money, and energy acquiring new talent or sending them to expensive and time consuming management training courses.

5. Enhanced Trust 5.

With autonomy, employees and managers often gain a better overall feeling of trust since there is a focus on communication and transparency. Rather than having to be micromanaged, managers can trust their team members are doing what they should be, and employees can get their work done while enjoying what they are doing. 

6. More Time 

Of course, the less time a manager has to spend performing oversight and giving step-by-step directions, the more time they have to focus on high-value tasks like being analytical, solving problems, and providing creative ideas to the organisation. 

How to Encourage Employee Autonomy?

Encouraging autonomy at work doesn’t just happen overnight. There’s a lot that has to be considered in anticipation and preparation in order to successfully open the door to having an autonomous workforce. 

Here are some best practices and ideas to accomplish autonomy within your organisation: 

1. Start Slow 

Start by introducing autonomy at work in steps. If you rush into it and give utmost freedom of choice after having strict guidelines before, then employees may be unclear about expectations. 

There needs to be a clear set of boundaries and a blueprint for what employees can and cannot do when you start introducing autonomy. For example, if you are supporting employees to work from home, then it makes sense to communicate how often you expect them to check in with their managers during the week. That way, expectations are clearly defined.  

2. Focus on Culture 

One of the best ways to ensure that autonomy at work will happen without hiccups within your organisation is to build a culture of trust from the get go. 

This may begin by delegating tasks and showcasing to your workforce that you trust them enough to take on responsibility. 

Furthermore, if mistakes occur (which they inevitably will), empower your employees to resolve them and come up with creative solutions on their own rather than reprimanding them for the mistake. 

3. Reward Success 

As employees become more autonomous and prove to be successful you can positively reward and recognise employees for their good work, whether it’s a big or small accomplishment. Continuous recognition and rewards will positively reinforce the desired behaviours and results.  

4. Provide Resources

Give your employees what they need to get their job done properly. For example, this could be implementing software and training them on how to use it, or even something a little more simple, like providing them with checklists for their tasks. It also can include investing in professional development programmes. 

As employees transition to working autonomously, it’s advisable to check-in with their mood and feelings about the changes they are experiencing. An employee wellbeing tool that monitors employee mental health can be great for this. It benefits your employees by enabling them to self diagnose and find solutions as they meet these challenges, while for HR and management it helps them to proactively foresee problems and make adjustments. 

5. Encourage a Growth Mindset

Fostering a growth mindset transforms organisations into an agile, proactive, and constantly improving group of individuals that look for solutions rather than get stuck on problems.. Promoting a growth mindset is similar to training athletes to – it involves visualisation, recognition, reward, and honing the ability to overcome setbacks with resilience. 

6. Hire for Talent 

Some people are more ripe for autonomy than others. It comes down to personalities and hiring the right type of talent. Look for people who aren’t afraid of taking on challenges, have good communication skills, and importantly, are confident and possess a love of learning. 

7. Track Wellbeing 

You’ll know if autonomy is working when you witness happy employees. But, employees don’t often have the space, time or feel secure enough to talk about their feelings, which may also be constantly changing. 

That’s where an employee wellbeing tool can be of immense use. Your team can monitor their own feelings and managers/HR teams can access anonymised data to proactively focus their attention on areas of the organisation which need it most.


Picture by Paige Cody from Unsplash


What are Examples of Autonomy at Work?

To get started on supporting autonomy at work, consider these realms: 

1. Flexibility

Instead of the traditional measurement that most organisations use to know how much an employee is working, aka timesheets and hours worked, instead grant your employees the option to choose when they work. 

Then you can monitor success based on outcome and the completion of tasks by their deadlines. While you don’t have to care when your employee is doing the work, they gain an incomparable sense of freedom by choosing when they work on it themselves.

Additionally, employees know best when they are most productive, so let them use that to their advantage. This also ends up benefiting the organisation as staff are happy and motivated. This all results in everything become more efficient, reducing costs, and higher quality increasing revenue.

2. Ownership

Take a step back and say goodbye to micromanagement. Providing employees with ownership over their work often results in them caring more and feeling more motivated and empowered to do more than the bare minimum. 

To achieve this sense of ownership, it works well if leadership and employees collaborate to set an employee’s goals and objectives so that employees have a firm understanding of their purpose. 

Leaders can then provide support to employees to achieve the outcome and establish guidelines to support them in being able to achieve the outcome, but not being prescriptive in how the outcome is achieved. 

To minimize risk whilst still maintaining autonomy, work to create appropriate guidelines that employees can operate within and make decisions within without putting the business at risk and without needing further approval. Should the need arise for an employee to step out of the guidelines, they can then seek approval. 

3. Listen In

When people feel heard and seen, they perform better. Here are a few ways to know how your employees feel: conduct surveys, ask for feedback, monitor emotions via wellbeing tools, execute employee reviews, and pay attention to what’s being said. 

Listening can help to achieve autonomy because leadership is made aware of pain points and areas of success. Employees get to share what they think can be improved upon and discuss the changes they wish to see with leadership. 

This offers a smooth way to transition to a more autonomous working environment as both the company and employees’ needs and desires are clearly stated. Remember moving to a more autonomous model doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a lot of trial and error, and the best way to evolve is to understand what's working and what's not.

Autonomy for One, Autonomy for All 

Autonomy at work may exist on an individual level, but it undeniably affects the organisation as a whole. By breeding a company culture where trust, communication, and accountability are supported, employees feel motivated, engaged, and happy at work. 

Autonomy at work benefits your business from the inside out. To keep an eye on how your workforce feels as you continue to promote autonomy at work, a wellbeing tool can offer deep insights and analytics concerning your team’s mood and motivation.

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