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Providing autonomy in a flexible work environment

By Madison Hanscom, Ph.D.

Autonomy is a beneficial job characteristic. Research has shown when you give employees more control over their work, it is related to a host of great outcomes like job satisfaction and higher performance (1). An advantage to remote work is the opportunity for individuals to enjoy more of the autonomy they desire — but are flex workers always getting this autonomy in reality?

A team of researchers recruited 1135 participants to take place in a study that collects information on their work experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic over time (2). The data collection began in April of 2020 and will run for 6 months. In this study, employees were asked if they have a considerable amount of autonomy to make workplace decisions that affect their work. Only 60% agreed.

Although a flex work model provides the opportunity for people to have more autonomy, it doesn’t always mean it is happening! Leaders and decision makers should consider ways to give back control to the worker. When people are given autonomy, they give back with trust and engagement. When managing remotely however, it is tempting to try and monitor employees closely as if they were in an office. Try to resist the urge. Rather than frequently monitoring how someone is doing their work, consider monitoring results or outcomes instead. (See our blog on “Rethinking the Tight Grip” for more insight). Consider these additional examples of how autonomy can be integrated into work.

Provide employees with increased control over/with…
• the pace of tasks (e.g., the worker can slow it down or speed it up; the individual can work at their own pace which might change throughout the shift)
• the timing of tasks (e.g., allow them to stagger things how they would prefer, like scheduling the most cognitively demanding tasks for earlier in the day and easier/routine tasks for later in the day)
• the timing of work (e.g., allow someone to work on Sunday instead of Monday if they have a life conflict)
• the approach in how to finish tasks (e.g., take more of a results orientation than a process orientation where applicable)
• making decisions within one’s expertise without going through unnecessary red tape
• performance management by allowing them to evaluate themselves, peers, and leaders
• how downtime is spent by allowing them to work on creative or improvement projects at their preference

Remember: people like flexibility, but they also want to know the expectations and how to meet them. Help people succeed by setting goals and checking in on objectives over time. For more on communicating expectations to a virtual workforce, see our blog “Employees want to know your expectations”.

If your company is on a journey to create more meaningful jobs for employees while also transitioning to a flex work model, autonomy is a critical consideration. Consider where you can give people more control over their day. Also, remember that the positive change will not occur over night. When employees are working in jobs with little autonomy for a long time, transitioning to a more autonomous model will take some time (3). Give them time and resources to adapt before expecting to see results in attitudes and performance.

At Propulo Consulting, we partner with you to improve the world of work. Our team has the expertise to help your business implement a sensible Flex Work strategy without pain. We work with you to ensure your company culture and processes develop accordingly during or after a Flex Work transition so you can continue to deliver results for your organization and customers. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into flexible work.

Referenced Studies:
(1) Morgeson, F. P., Delaney-Klinger, K., & Hemingway, M. A. (2005). The importance of job autonomy, cognitive ability, and job-related skill for predicting role breadth and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(2), 399.
(2) Centre for Transformative Work Design survey: https://360e1fd0-be66-41c9-867d-7a6618e5d7fe.filesusr.com/ugd/bd06d8_7d3fc9d8e05449cca8e8ff4d5873e977.pdf
(3) Parker, S. K., Axtell, C. M., & Turner, N. (2001). Designing a safer workplace: Importance of job autonomy, communication quality, and supportive supervisors. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(3), 211.

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