Autonomy: You want to give it to your employees. But are they ready?
Autonomy: You want to give it to your employees. But are they ready?

Autonomy: You want to give it to your employees. But are they ready?

Leadership Development, Employee Learning & Development, Hybrid Workforce, Company Culture   — 4 MIN


Most company leaders value employee autonomy and want more of it…but are they providing the tools and training to make it happen? Despite knowing the benefits of having personnel who can work independently, many companies have trouble letting go of the reins. But there are ways to tell if your workers can run their show, and best practices that can help empower employees to become more autonomous. 

What exactly is autonomy in the workplace?

Autonomy is the ability to make decisions without being told what to do. When a company encourages employee autonomy, it allows them to work in the way that suits them best. This might mean choosing their hours, deciding whether they want to work in the office or at home, and having a say in their project deadlines based on the complexity of the work and how it fits in with their other responsibilities. 

In simple words, autonomy means ditching policies for principles and allowing employees to use critical thinking and decision-making skills to do their jobs. An autonomous work environment is built upon respect, trust, and accountability.

What are the advantages of employee autonomy?

The benefits of autonomy in the workplace have been known since the 1960s, well before COVID-19 placed flexible work arrangements in the spotlight. Back then, employees who were delegated tasks exhibited more motivation, leading to better performance and work satisfaction. The organizations that allowed this basic level of autonomy also experienced lower absenteeism and turnover rates.

Fast forward 50 years and the advantages of autonomy are still the same—but employees appreciate flexibility more than ever. According to Forbes, 12.7% of today’s full-time employees work from home, while 28.2% work a hybrid model. But 98% of workers surveyed would prefer to work remotely at least part of the time to enjoy a better work-life balance.

However, being allowed to work from home isn’t enough for much of today’s workforce. Radostina Purvanova, a professor of leadership and management at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, explains the difference between flexibility and true autonomy to SHRM:

Often, when employers say they're giving employees flexibility, they mean letting them work from their homes two days a week "but then requiring that they come to the office for three days," Purvanova says. "Well, that's not true flexibility."

The prospect of giving employees the autonomy to choose where, when, and how they work can be a scary proposition for employers who question whether they can trust employees. But, Purvanova says, "If you're an employer who is truly interested in recruiting and retaining employees using a newfound love for flexibility, you have to pair that up with a newfound love for trust in your employees."

If more employers would empower employees by giving them more flexibility, independence, and trust, they, too, would enjoy the benefits of autonomy, including:

  • Greater productivity
  • Increased creativity, leading to innovative ideas
  • Loyal employees who feel valued, leading to less turnover
  • Reduced labor costs
  • Greater sense of team and organizational culture

But for employees to feel empowered, they must be able to think critically and make decisions independently. Lessons in gaining those skills should be a part of every HR department’s training curriculum. 

How to tell if an employee is ready for more autonomy

We know that employees appreciate working autonomously. But how can leaders tell when a team member is ready to be trusted to work on their own? First, they must be with the organization long enough to exhibit their work ethic. Then, they should show all the signs:

They show good judgment

When employees use critical thinking skills, ask the right questions before taking action, and seek input from others when devising a plan, they are less likely to make rash decisions.

They ask for help

Reaching out for a leader’s advice when they have a problem does not mean an employee can’t do the task at hand. Asking for help is a crucial decision-making skill and means the employee truly cares about finding the right answer or correct method.

They have a solid track record

While no employee is perfect, one who meets or exceeds expectations most of the time is ready for autonomy. Leaders can be confident that when an assignment is made, it will get completed on budget, on time, and to the best of their ability.

They hold themselves accountable

When autonomous employees make a mistake, they don’t blame anyone else or make excuses. They take ownership of their actions and do what’s necessary to fix it.

They are good team members, whether working alone or with others

Employee autonomy has the connotation of working independently, but it requires being able to value everyone involved in the task or project. Even when working remotely, employees should be willing to call a peer or leader for help, participate in important meetings, and want to do what’s best for the good of the whole organization.   

Creating a company of autonomous employees

Companies that want to foster an autonomous culture must empower employees by giving them time to learn and exercise decision-making skills and strong critical thinking skills. One way to do this is to teach those skills as part of the training curriculum. Other ways are to:

Build a culture of trust

When managers refuse to delegate tasks to employees, they appear not confident in the employee’s capabilities. If employees don’t feel trusted, they are hesitant to trust management. Allowing workers to take on responsibilities sets the tone that leaders have faith in employees—and that gives employees the confidence to work on their own.

Lead with a growth mindset

Employees afraid to make mistakes have trouble taking initiative—a big part of working autonomously. When leaders practice a growth mindset, workers understand that there are learning opportunities around every corner—and are more eager to discover them.  

Stop micromanaging

Employees can’t feel free to complete tasks as they see fit if they are constantly being watched and corrected. Leaders must balance trusting team members’ decision-making skills and providing support as needed. Employees must receive goals and metrics and then be allowed to work on them.

As Joan F. Cheverie, Manager of Professional Development Programs at EDUCAUSE points out to managers who aim for employee autonomy, “This is the point where you stop telling your staff how to do their job and, instead, set the strategic direction, deadlines, and benchmarks and then allow them to determine how to accomplish the job.”

Remind mentors to keep autonomy in their discussions

One of the missions of a mentorship program is to help employees learn the core values of the company and work at working by them. When mentors remind mentees that respect, trust, and accountability are all things that will help them succeed, employees begin to comprehend the building blocks of autonomy. 

Learn to be resilient

While flexibility has a lot of good qualities, it also means letting go of predictability. Employee autonomy will not work if managers panic when something doesn’t go as planned. For instance, if an employee’s home WiFi is down and they can’t jump on a Zoom call, it’s okay to call them on the phone or reschedule. By teaching leaders to be adaptable and make decisions under pressure, autonomous companies can succeed.

The right training can empower employees to become autonomous

Companies who want more flexible, independent leaders can unleash those qualities through flexible training opportunities. Blue Ocean Brain offers lessons on managing remote teams, building resilience, increasing trust, and many other subjects crucial to fostering an autonomous workforce. They’re available in bite-sized lessons that allow employees to watch and learn within their flow of work. 


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