When I started my company, 97th Floor, I wanted the freedom to be able to coach my kids in a soccer game in the afternoon or to be able to skip a day to go surfing or snowboarding. I cherish that level of freedom and work-life balance.
The funny thing is, as my company grew, I realized that while I was enjoying days off whenever I wanted, my employees weren’t getting that. I would be out on the slopes while my employees were at work. Yes, they were doing what they were paid to do, but it dawned on me that the freedom I loved could extend to them as well.
I wanted to be treated like an adult because I knew how to manage my time. The question became: “Why can’t my employees be treated the same way?” So, together with our COO, we gave each worker the same autonomy. There would be no clocking in or out. Employees could set their own schedules. They could figure out for themselves how best to do their work and have the freedom to see where it all led. Instead of monitoring time, we would monitor results. That was all that mattered.
We saw great outcomes after implementing the policy, and I truly believe granting more employee autonomy will only benefit businesses. Workplace autonomy leads to increased productivity, a greater sense of freedom, more control over how people do their work, increased job satisfaction, greater trust in leaders, stronger relationships at work, higher retention, and increased employee engagement.
Sadly, though, autonomy at work is something too few employees experience. According to My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide by Harry E. Chambers, 79 percent of survey respondents indicated they experienced micromanagement, leading to more than two-thirds of them wanting to change jobs. And 85 percent of people shared that micromanagement impacted them negatively.
Clearly, autonomy in the workplace will benefit employees, business leaders, and the company as a whole. This article will show you how to give employees more freedom while still being productive.
Table of Contents
What Is Autonomy?
Autonomy in the workplace is the freedom employees at all levels have to do their jobs most effectively and perform at a high level. Employee autonomy represents a high level of trust and respect in workers, believing they will also hold themselves accountable. An autonomous employee is someone who is enthusiastic about their job and is always seeking improvements.
What Autonomy Is Not
Workplace autonomy is not the same as flexibility. While many employees may claim to want flexibility, in reality, autonomy in the workplace is what they crave. Unfortunately, many people use the two terms interchangeably. The following are just a few examples of what counts more as flexibility and not employee autonomy.
- Allowing employees to become remote workers but mandating work hours.
- Requiring a certain number of days to be in the office.
- Setting mandatory meetings outside of normal schedules.
- Establishing a slim set of tools and resources employees can choose from.
The Benefits of Providing More Autonomy at Work
- Allows more support for entrepreneurial workers: You can show encouragement toward those employees that demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit. This gives them an opportunity to really shine and delve into their passions.
- Increases problem-solvers: With more autonomy comes more employees tackling problems on their own. For business owners, this means they can solve problems affecting the business more quickly since workers bring up solutions more readily.
- Gives more responsibility and ownership: When employees are free to perform their jobs the way they want, they take more ownership of it. This leads to them becoming more engaged and emotionally invested in the success of the business, which results in better performances overall.
- Creates additional revenue: According to researchers at the University of Oxford, happy employees are more productive and do a better job. That means they’re working to drive growth and increase revenue.
- Improves employee retention: As seen in the book My Way or the Highway, lack of autonomy in the workplace means people are more likely to leave their jobs. Giving employees more freedom means they’ll want to stay and help the company grow. After all, who doesn’t want to stay at a job where it feels like their boss respects, trusts, and supports them?
How to Give Employees More Autonomy
1. Review Outdated Practices
When Mary Barra became the CEO of GM, she had to face numerous policies that were negatively affecting employee morale and productivity. For example, GM had a lengthy dress code that included ten pages of rules and restrictions workers had to follow. Barra took that dress code and narrowed it down from ten pages to a simple two-word rule: “dress appropriately.”
By doing this, Barra granted more employee autonomy at work. No longer did they have to constantly worry about what they were wearing. They could instead focus on their work.
Many companies suffer from outdated practices and policies. Sometimes, they’ll have a rule in place that was written 20 years ago. Don’t settle for policies just because that’s the way it’s always been done. Instead, treat employees like the adults they are. Go back through your employee handbook and the onboarding process regularly to see if everything is still relevant.
Here are some examples of outdated practices you might want to review:
- Mandated 9 to 5 business hours.
- Annual performance reviews.
- Strict “chain of command” communication.
- Stressing work hours over KPIs.
- Motivation solely through bonuses and raises.
- Placing teams and departments in individual silos.
For the new rules and policies you adopt, think about how to create more trust and freedom. See things through the eyes of a good manager. Show your team that you believe they will always dress and act appropriately at work. Such steps will improve the employee experience.
2. Give Team Members Opportunities to Be Intrapreneurs
I’ve known many people who have become very successful entrepreneurs in their own right. But a close friend of mine chose a different path. Instead of starting his own company as an entrepreneur, he chose to be an intrapreneur. That means, he used his entrepreneurial spirit inside a company someone else started. Basically, he has enjoyed the same kind of success an entrepreneur does without dealing with headaches like payroll taxes, 401k plans, health insurance, and more.
You can provide the same type of freedom to your employees. Encourage them to be intrapreneurs in your company. Ask them to be open about problems they believe they can solve, then give them the resources to do it. Act as their guide to help them reach their potential.
How to foster an entrepreneurial spirit:
- Be open to their pitches for new ideas.
- Give them time to innovate and create.
- Help them identify their passions, and let them pursue them.
- Reward behavior that shakes up the status quo for the better.
- Instill a sense of responsibility and ownership.
- Aim for increased transparency.
3. Provide Room for Mistakes
For too long, many businesses have operated with the mentality of avoiding mistakes as much as possible. It’s the thinking behind the “failure is not an option” philosophy. However, that strategy not only stifles creativity, but it also acts like a cage that impacts autonomy at work.
Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, has shared that Pixar didn’t look at mistakes as terrible things. He notably stated, “Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen and let people fix them . . . Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.”
When you have an innovative environment, mistakes are inevitable. You can’t expect them not to happen. When you’re reaching for big goals and trying to change the world, failure will occur. Even hugely successful companies, like Apple, experience failure from time to time.
So, you need to give your employees room to make mistakes. Teach them how to fail. As Oprah Winfrey described it, “I don’t believe in failure. It is not failure if you enjoyed the process.”
Here are several steps you can follow to do this:
- Encourage a growth mindset in each worker.
- Allow for open communication in the workplace.
- Establish a high level of trust between employees.
- Be transparent about your own mistakes and what you learned from them.
- Provide training that breaks through limiting beliefs.
4. Grow Trust and Build Strong Relationships
Many leaders don’t want to provide their teams with employee autonomy because they feel like no one can do what they do as well as they do it. In other words, they don’t trust their employees to do their jobs well. Frankly, that’s a strange way to operate a business.
Ultimately, it really requires growing trust and building great relationships with your team. You need to make an effort to provide them with what they need. Part of that starts with the hiring process. As Steve Jobs said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Make sure your hiring process only brings on A-players. If you have C- and B-players, then it might be understandable why you would hesitate to give them more freedom. A-players, however, will bask in that freedom and produce the results you want to see in your company.
Other ways you can build trust:
- Provide effective training from the start to set them up for success.
- Have a strong onboarding process that includes emphasizing the company’s culture.
- Regularly communicate with your team members.
- Provide recognition for team successes.
- Get to know each other in a casual setting.
- Don’t place blame–only look for solutions.
5. Delegate Responsibilities
One of the most important leadership styles and skills involves delegation. In a sense, delegation is all about handing over tasks and responsibilities to those who are much better at doing it than you. Knowing when that is the case is the key. As Richard Branson once put it, “The art of delegation is one of the key skills any entrepreneur must master.”
When you delegate responsibilities, you give people the chance to come up with effective solutions. It was my COO, after all, who suggested giving our employees the same level of autonomy I enjoyed. If I hadn’t delegated the responsibilities of running the business to him, it’s possible we never would have made that decision.
Delegation requires a great deal of trust, which is why mastering the previous point is so important. I had a lot of trust in my COO, and that made implementing his suggestion much easier. When you trust your employees to work hard, they will respond well. In this way, you’ll notice delegation goes closely with autonomy.
How to delegate more effectively:
- Teach critical thinking and problem-solving.
- Give team members the power to make decisions for themselves.
- Determine which tasks are the best candidates for delegation.
- Hire people with diverse skill sets.
- Set very clear objectives and goals.
- Promote a feeling of ownership among your employees.
6. Provide the Resources They Need to Succeed
Part of the strength of autonomy is that it gives employees the freedom to pursue excellence in their job, but that doesn’t mean you get to completely exit the scene. You need to support them and give them the resources they need. Dr. Steve Kerr, formerly of GE and Goldman Sachs, taught, “If you want something to happen, you have to make people able and you have to make them want to.” When you don’t support them, then they can’t make things happen.
Give people the tools and resources they need to thrive on their own. You may provide them with what you use to start with, but their jobs may require other essentials. So, ask them how you can help them do their jobs. That may even require giving people time off to prevent work burnout. As a leader, you are there to create success in any way possible.
How to support your employees:
- Make yourself available to them at any time.
- Listen to feedback.
- Create a clean, safe, and productive work environment.
- Acknowledge challenges and praise successes.
- Provide a list of resources they can call upon when needed.
- Have a budget that can be spent on tools and platforms when requested.
7. Open Lines of Communication
As noted above, much of autonomy relies on having open and honest communication. That open conversation starts with you. You need to be able to have conversations with your employees where they tell you how you can give them more autonomy. So, take their feedback seriously, and offer feedback of your own.
Doing this will establish the trust needed to allow people to have lots of freedom in their jobs. And the more someone trusts you, the better feedback they’ll give you. It’s a positive feedback loop that pays dividends.
At the same time, create a team culture where this type of communication can grow. People need to feel like they can speak their minds without any fear of punishment. Consider their opinions thoughtfully, and don’t just dismiss them. If you do dismiss them, they’ll be less likely to offer their thoughts in the future.
Other ways you can encourage open communication:
- Be respectful at all times.
- Practice active listening techniques.
- Plan for brainstorming sessions where everyone is encouraged to share ideas.
- Show your appreciation for employees both privately and publicly.
- Establish open communication and honesty as some of your core values.
How to Create More Autonomy for Yourself
While this article may focus much on giving employees autonomy, you may wonder how you can create autonomy for yourself. The fact is, though, as you create more autonomy for your employees, you end up with more yourself. That’s the beautiful thing about this whole process.
In a way, you’re opening up more possibilities for what you can do. You’re giving your employees the freedom to pursue their passions and excel at them, leaving you with more time to do the same. It doesn’t have to come all at once, though. For me, it took a lot of work to get to that point. Still, it will happen when you focus on creating more freedom for your workers. You will end up with the autonomy you’ve always wanted in the end.
Be sure to check out these other articles on entrepreneurship to learn more.