Businesses are constantly trying new things to get the best performance out of their people. Everything, from cash incentives and performance tracking, to 360 feedback and open-plan offices. But what if the best way to actually motivate performance is just to leave people to it by improving the level of workplace autonomy?

That might sound counterintuitive. But giving employees control of their own work is often the best way to get results. So, today, we’re looking at workplace autonomy and five ways to help nurture it.

Workplace autonomy, also called employee autonomy, is just what it sounds like. It means that employees determine how they complete their assigned tasks. They’re trusted to do their work without oversight or micromanagement. Employees with a high degree of personal autonomy might even have some control over when they work too.

Contrary to what its detractors claim, autonomy doesn’t mean employees can get away with doing nothing. If anything, it’s the opposite. For managers of autonomous employees, the focus is entirely on results. Employees are responsible for their decisions, as well as whether they succeed or fail.

The idea of workplace autonomy is also tied up in the whole debate around job flexibility. People working from home usually don’t have much in the way of direct supervision. As a result, critics tend to use similar arguments to decry both concepts. The idea that these things somehow result in laziness or distraction.

What are the benefits of improving workplace autonomy?

If you’re not still sold on the idea of autonomy for your employees, then you might just need some convincing. So, before we dive into how to nurture workplace autonomy, let’s look at what you can gain from it.

Employees are more productive as decision-makers

First off, let’s put the main argument to bed. No, giving your people workplace autonomy won’t make them less productive. Things won’t fall apart because you’re not breathing down their necks. If anything, autonomy will actually enable your people to do their best work. That’s because it’s a highly intrinsic form of motivation. It increases the sense of personal responsibility, which helps people take more pride in their work. It also means they feel more responsible for the outcome, including if they fail to meet their targets.

Total workplace autonomy isn’t feasible in every possible role. A lot of highly repetitive or labour-intensive jobs can only be approached a particular way. But even giving employees choices to make can provide them with a sense of ownership over their work.

Employee autonomy is good for employee wellbeing

It might seem odd to think of wellbeing as an autonomy benefit. But, according to CIPD’s seven domains of wellbeing, “good work” is a key factor in our long-term wellbeing. And autonomy is actually one of the key factors behind what makes a person’s work “good.”

Even the best of jobs can be stressful. And having to meet someone else’s expectations only adds to that. Especially when it means you have to take a different approach than you normally would. It’s much less of a grind to be able to do things in your own way.

But autonomy also means being able to make decisions for the wellbeing of you and your colleagues. That might mean whistleblowing due to ethical concerns. Or it might mean strike action for better working conditions. On the less extreme end, it includes giving critical feedback to your boss or employer. Or registering a formal complaint with HR. 

Freedom helps employees to innovate

Workplaces have changed in the last few years, and we can’t discount the importance of innovation. It’s one of the strongest arguments against bogging down your people with pointless procedure.

With workplace autonomy comes the freedom to experiment. And the possibility they’ll find a faster or more comprehensive way of doing something. And the less time they take doing a task or correcting errors, the more time they have for everything else.

Workplace autonomy supports improved accessibility and flexibility

It’s something you might not think about if it’s never affected you. But prescriptivist nature of some roles can limit the kinds of people able to do them. These sorts of barriers can be a frustrating at best, or discriminatory at worst.

For example, maybe you want your team working in the open plan office to aid collaboration. But, if you have employees with sensory issues, that environment might be too bright noisy for them to focus. So, giving employees the freedom to pick a quieter work space can be the best way to support them.

Autonomy also plays a key role in enabling job flexibility. Remote work could never have seen us through the Pandemic if employers couldn’t trust their people. And, whether we’re talking about accessibility or flexibility, it all stems from the same need. The need for control. Being able to control how, when and where you work can make many careers so much more feasible for a lot of people.

Improving workplace autonomy in 5 steps

As a manager, enabling workplace autonomy will free up your attention for what actually matters. But an autonomous workplace culture starts with its leadership. So, let’s take a look at some of the main ways you can get started.

Read the current situation

Autonomy or otherwise, there’s no sense pushing an engagement strategy if you don’t know what’s going on with your people. In other words, start by checking in with everyone. A regular check-in will give you a real-time view of engagement and sentiment. You’ll know what all the hot-button issues are, and what people want.

If you don’t have an employee check-in, either implement one or make do with whatever survey tools you have. The point is to get up to speed on the issues in your workplace, so that you can provide autonomy in the most effective way.

Understand your blockers

It’s not enough for your people to tick some survey boxes and hope things get better. You actually need to engage with the information at hand. It’s about understanding the obstacles between you and improved workplace autonomy. If your employees are criticising you, it’s imperative you take it on-board. This can be easier said than done, but reflection and introspection are the skills of a great leader.

But, in general, there are a couple of things that tend to interfere with employee autonomy. First off, micromanagement is sometimes baked into the work culture. If yours teaches managers to keep their people under a magnifying glass, you’ll have a tough time breaking those habits. It may be that you need a whole new training process, which many employers lack in the first place.

Like smoke and fire, you don’t tend to see micromanagement without a lack of trust driving it. And, for autonomy at work, trust is the most vital ingredient. If you can trust your people to work autonomously, they’re much more likely to trust you in return.

Implement effective goal-setting

Since autonomy means a results-focused approach, the goals you set are more important than ever. You need to achieve total alignment with your OKRs, with no two projects working against each other.

Good goal-setting helps you to practice that most vital management skill, delegation. Intentions and expectations should be clear and understandable. There should be clear lines for employees to work within.

Of course, when we lean into workplace autonomy, it invites us to go a step further. Which raises the question, can you rely on your people to set their own goals?

In theory, yes. Though that’s not to say there aren’t caveats. On one hand, there’s job-crafting. There’s nothing stopping employees from taking on small, additional responsibilities. It’s essentially discretionary effort that can even lead to innovation.

But actual projects need more consideration. Any goal they set needs to support business objectives. This means that managers (or even senior leadership) might need to sign off on it.

The simplest solution is to make time to listen to your team’s ideas, in meetings or otherwise. If something sounds good, you can throw it back to them as a formal assignment. It’s a safe bet they’ll work hard, as they’ll take a sense of ownership over the idea.

Provide regular feedback and support

This wouldn’t be one of our articles if we didn’t stress the importance of regular feedback, would it?

But improving workplace autonomy doesn’t mean you can’t still guide performance. And there’s no sense waiting for performance review season when you can help them immediately. It’s about showing people more effective ways of doing things, rather than expecting them to do it your way with no context.

But it’s not only about telling people how to improve. Regular feedback also means regular opportunities to listen. This means you’ll be in a position to affect the issues at work that people care about. In that sense, you’re not just giving employees autonomy in their roles. You’re giving it to them in the ability to shape workplace culture too.

Give your people recognition and visibility

Our final point is about helping your people thrive once they have their autonomy. Given that it’s a results-focused approach, what do you do with those results?

Hype them up, of course!

Encourage the behaviour you want to see. Congratulate your top performers on a job well done. But don’t stop there. Make sure everyone knows when someone goes above and beyond. Recognition and visibility combine with autonomy to promote a work culture of self-motivation. And will boost your engagement levels too. The visibility of your top performers will spur others on to do more.

So, there you have it. Workplace autonomy is the secret ingredient that can help elevate your workplace culture. You have to trust your people with the responsibility. But the results are absolutely worth it!