Autonomy can be one of the most powerful pro-engagement factors for an organization. Creating an autonomy culture is crucial for employee engagement to flourish. If you’re starting from scratch in the kind of company where employees feel compelled to look over their shoulders at all times, begin by figuring out the level and type of autonomy that your people want. Are they most interested in spatial or temporal autonomy, which you can provide by allowing telecommuting or exploring scheduling possibilities? Or are they after something more esoteric, as in the respondents to a Fortinet survey in which more than 50 percent said they viewed using their own mobile devices at work as a right, rather than a privilege?1 Know what kind of autonomy matters to your workforce before you offer it.
The design and architectural firm Gensler, which has designed work spaces for such clients as the World Bank and Virgin Mobile, has found through internal research that giving employees more control over their physical environment leads to optimal performance. Their 2013 employee survey showed that employees given more control over where, when, and how to work had higher levels of innovation, satisfaction, and job performance. They also found that technology workers in “open” offices (where furniture can be reconfigured and there are few privacy barriers) actually focus better than those in traditional office configurations.2
Having the autonomy to design a physical space—cubicle, office, work van, an area of the plant floor, even a jail cell—engenders in the employee a sense of ownership. He or she immediately does the equivalent of marking his or her territory. It’s a way of telling others, “This is my space.” Researchers at the University of Exeter School of Psychology studied more than two-thousand office workers and found that those who had control over the layout of their work space were 32 percent more productive than counterparts who lacked that control.3 That’s a meaningful difference that impacts the bottom line.
With ownership, one also claims responsibility (and the inherent accountability) for a space, task, role, or assignment. Ownership is a powerful factor in creating engagement.
Make the autonomy you offer meaningful and authentic. The more potential risk a type of autonomy carries for the organization, the more meaningful it is to the employee. In other words, giving employees freedom to decorate their cubicles while directing their team activities with an iron4 ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® fist means nothing. It’s an insult. Meaningful autonomy, at times, may mean that the boss trusts you with something that has the potential to embarrass the organization, or cost it money . . . making you much more likely to handle with care.
Grant employees ownership. Create an environment that offers both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators can be as straightforward as performance incentives, an extra afternoon off, or profit sharing. Intrinsic motivators demand more subtlety but can be evoked by measures that attach meaning and purpose to the work, training that fosters the desire for excellence, and other tactics that align work with positive feelings. Effective autonomy empowers employees to tap into the meaning that underlies their work. For instance, allowing an employee with small children to work from home three days a week can connect her to one of the reasons she’s working so hard—the welfare of her family—and help her be a more committed, inspired employee.
Next, structure broad goals, desired outcomes, and general boundaries but allow your people to determine everything else about how they reach those goals. Let them do things their way as long as they behave and operate appropriately within the context of key relationships—and as long as they deliver. Also, create clear accountability systems that remind employees they can come and go like the wind, and dye their hair green, only as long as at the end of the quarter they have hit or surpassed their benchmarks.
Provide your people with the tools and resources they need to reach your goals and theirs. Training, technology, new faces, whatever it takes. Again, this is about trust, saying, “I’m willing to invest in you and your ideas because I believe you’ll make it worthwhile.”
Finally, once you’ve done all this, get out of the way and let people do their thing. If you hire people who want to give 110 percent and put them in an 85 percent environment, you’ll do your organization greater harm than by hiring 85-percenters in the first place. Don’t grant autonomy if you as a manager aren’t prepared to follow through. Keep in mind that once employees have a taste of true autonomy, they won’t want to give it up. We’ll watch Yahoo! and see how this real-time experiment in taking away autonomy plays out.
1 Ellen Messmer, “Young Employees Say BYOD a ‘Right’ Not ‘Privilege,’” CIO, June 19, 2012.
2 Gensler, 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey
3 Craig Knight and S. Alexander Haslam, “Your Place or Mine? Organizational Identification and Comfort as Mediators of Relationships Between the Managerial Control of Workspace and Employees’ Satisfaction and Well-Being,” British Journal of Management 21, no. 3 (2010).
4 H. A. Simon and W. G. Chase, “Skill in Chess,” American Scientist 61, (1973): 394–403; D. K. Simonton, “Philosophical Eminence, Beliefs, and Zeitgeist: An Individual-Generational.”