Is Autonomy the new Flexibility?



Flexibility is an increasingly common enticement in a job offering these days. Once considered an optional bonus, employees expect flexibility in their employment roles these days. The need to adhere to COVID 19 protocols has also forced employers to be more adaptable and allow flexible workplace policies such as working from home, job sharing or part-time working.


So flexibility is a given, but what about autonomy? Research shows that employees who are allowed more self-governance enjoy higher levels of job satisfaction. The benefits for businesses include less turnover and increased productivity.


But what do we mean by flexibility and autonomy in the workplace?


Workplace Flexibility


Here’s one definition of workplace flexibility (courtesy of mightyrecruiter.com):


“A company is said to have workplace flexibility when they acknowledge employees’ needs to deal with unforeseen circumstances in regards to scheduling. An example of such flexibility is allowing employees to give input when creating schedules and allotting shifts. Other examples include making exceptions for unforeseen family circumstances and personal needs, or allowing employees to do part of their work at home.”


Flexibility can include flexible working hours, WFH or the availability of leave for study, school holidays etc. In the current tight labour market, employers willing to offer more flexible work arrangements are likely to have an edge in employee negotiations.


Workplace Autonomy


Author Daniel Pink has defined autonomy as “having some control over the work you do, when you do it, how you do it and who you do it with”. In 2018, Statistics NZ carried out a working life survey. They examined the correlation between autonomy and job satisfaction, specifically looking at:


  • the control employees have over how their daily work is organised

  • the control over how they do their daily tasks

  • the level of influence they have on decision-making that affects their work.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the survey found that those with low autonomy were less satisfied with their work. Some say having a sense of control over your work is the most important aspect of autonomy.


Is autonomy the new flexibility?


What people want now, whether we are consumers or employees—is more control. There are many examples of how businesses provide consumers with more autonomy over their purchasing decisions. Examples include KiwiYo, where you can create your own ice cream, or Nike, where you can design your own shoe.


We want to design our own workload, which is especially true of those who work in the gig economy. According to Statistics NZ, the total number of self-employed people increased by 7.5 per cent in the year to March 2021. This increase suggests many people are actively seeking greater control over their work life. For women, the percentage of self-employed (and without employees) increased by 14%.


So what does increased control look like in practical terms, and what can leaders do to manage expectations around job autonomy?


Autonomy doesn’t mean an employee can work whenever and however they want. There needs to be clear boundaries and accountability for actions, but within that framework, employees should be trusted to make their own choices and take responsibility for them.


Give your people tools and resources to reach their goals. These could include cross-functional teams and engaging projects to keep work stimulating. Team autonomy, where members are given the freedom to organise their work independently, can be a powerful tool for engagement. Fostering autonomy helps businesses retain their people for longer, providing opportunities for collaborative lateral career development.


It might seem obvious, but the best thing leaders can do to encourage more self-determination amongst their people is to step back and let them do their thing. Giving them responsibility and ownership will pay dividends in fresh ideas, skills development and job satisfaction.


Feel free to get in touch if you want some ideas around building autonomy as a retention and engagement tool.


Kia pai tō rā,


lisa@loveyourworknz.nz



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