Amid talent shortages, supply chain disruptions, and macroeconomic shifts, businesses must innovate to thrive and expand. Whether a company can flourish is dependant upon its people, and experts suggest that one of the best ways to motivate your current employees and attract new ones is to offer more autonomy in the workplace.
Unfortunately, driven by skepticism of the shift to remote and hybrid work, some employers are tightening the reins instead. As a recent PwC report put it, “employees can be a force multiplier or detractor,” and companies appear more concerned by the latter. In 2022, Gartner identified the increased use of employee monitoring software as a trend, and a 2021 survey of 7,600 global IT, HR, and business leaders by VMware found that 70% of companies surveyed had installed or planned to install monitoring systems on remote employees’ computers that can record keystrokes, capture screenshots, and track employees’ locations.
Companies that use monitoring software say they do it to manage workflow and maintain data security, not to surveil employees; but digital monitoring is a surefire way to stifle the creative problem-solving that businesses need in order to grow, says Lindsay McGregor, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. “Ironically, putting in that system to catch the 1 out of 1,000 demotivates the other 999,” she tells Staffing.com. “You’re actually causing the very problem you’re trying to solve and, not realizing that, you don’t spend time on the more systemic changes that could really help.”
Catherine Moy, Chief People Officer for BDO USA, a pioneer in remote and hybrid work in the professional services sector, agrees that trusting workers is key. “[Company culture] has to be built on trust. We employ really smart, good, well-intentioned, purpose-driven people, and we trust them to create good outcomes individually and as members of teams,” Moy tells Staffing.com. She considers the where and when of accomplishing an outcome less important, saying the more relevant questions are, “‘What do I need to achieve, and what do we together need to achieve, and how do we depend on each other?’ It's not an individual sport.”
Defining Autonomy in the Workplace
Autonomy looks different depending on the company and the role, but at its core, self-determination at work is about giving employees the freedom to problem-solve, says McGregor, who is also the founder of Vega Factor, an organizational consultancy that focuses on adaptive performance.
“When people feel like their job is simply to follow a set of instructions, when they feel like their job is purely tactical, it’s incredibly demotivating,” she says.
For her book, she and co-author Neel Doshi, a fellow McKinsey alum, surveyed nearly 10,000 remote and in-office workers in the US and found that those who felt empowered to experiment and solve meaningful problems were approximately five times more motivated than those who felt they were merely executing a set of predetermined tasks.
McGregor says companies need to ask workers “to bring their brain[s] to work,” whether they’re working from home, on the road, or at company headquarters. “What really motivates and inspires people is the play that comes from problem-solving, from learning, from the opportunity to be curious.”
Autonomy is so important to employee happiness that nearly half of workers in a 2019 PwC survey said they would forgo a significant pay raise to have more control at work. Employees’ desire for an autonomous workplace has only increased in the years since, after having a taste of it during the shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, says survey co-author Bhushan Sethi, PwC’s Joint Global Leader of People & Organization and an adjunct professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business.
Savvy employers are increasingly willing to accommodate, seeing the benefits of autonomy in the workplace as a win-win for everyone: “In the pandemic, many companies have had to empower their people to make decisions,” Sethi tells Staffing.com. “They ripped the Band-Aid off in 2020 and haven’t looked back. Companies have said, ‘We can make speedier decisions, we can eliminate bureaucracy.’”
McGregor says managers should be careful not to confuse autonomy with hands-off management, however. There is a balance when considering how to create autonomy in the workplace. “Too many people believe that autonomy means they should completely leave their people alone and that’s going to create the best work, and it really doesn’t,” she says. “Think about the most inspiring teacher or coach you’ve ever had. They didn’t ignore you. They figured out how to inspire you and make you better at what you do.”
In researching her book, McGregor found that having an absent manager can be just as unmotivating as being micromanaged. “When we measure the motivation of people who have a hands-off manager, it’s actually extremely low, and that’s because we all want to be in an environment where the people we work with make us better,” she says.
The Neuroscience of Autonomy at Work
Emerging research hints at an underlying physiological mechanism for the effects of workplace autonomy. In a 2020 study, researchers placed electrodes on participants’ hands to read electrodermal activity—a measure of physiologic effort—then gave them a task to perform. One group of participants was primed with a three-minute video about the impact of greater autonomy on productivity, while the control group watched a similar video about productivity software.
“When we endowed the participants with autonomy and told them, ‘Figure out how to do it your way,’ they put in more physiologic effort,” says study co-author Paul Zak, a five-time TED speaker and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University. They also enjoyed the task more and were more productive, he says. “Autonomy gets you this kind of triple whammy: more productivity, greater effort, and greater happiness at work.”
When companies grant employees autonomy, they feel trusted—and trust sets off a cascade of beneficial physiological effects, Zak says. He has studied the role that the neurochemical oxytocin—the same substance released when you pet an animal or hug a friend—plays in building trust among colleagues and teams. When people feel trusted, their brains release oxytocin, he says, which creates a feeling of well-being that, in turn, makes that person more likely to offer help to colleagues and collaborate more effectively.
“Autonomy is a sign of trust,” Zak says. “If your supervisor is letting you work on your own, clearly they’re saying, ‘Look, I trust you to be able to execute this thing.’” Once trust has been established at the top, employees feel goodwill toward co-workers, ultimately creating a culture of collaboration and innovation. “What we find is that in high-trust organizations, people actually feel closer to their colleagues. The trust releases oxytocin, which is the key that unlocks a whole chain of good feelings that lead people to build relationships, and it’s those social ties that make autonomous workers more productive.”
The Link Between Work Autonomy and Innovation
Once people are given the freedom to problem-solve and granted a certain amount of ownership over their work, innovation can flourish. Research suggests that when workers have even a limited degree of autonomy, they tend to be more creative.
“When you have autonomy in business and you’re doing something your way, you gain cognitive resources because it’s not difficult to do anymore,” Zak says. People find shortcuts, which frees up brain power to innovate. “Because we have this big prefrontal cortex, we can ideate while we’re doing something [else].”
And, like autonomy, creativity impacts motivation, Sethi says. “Creativity is something that really engages people and inspires people. It’s a reason that people will stay with a firm where they can actually develop new products, drive innovation, and co-create new ways of working that could reduce workload and enable greater flexibility in work location and schedules.”
Adjustments to processes and job roles don’t need to be sweeping to have an impact. “There are changes that you can make to how work gets done on a team that make a huge difference to the motivation of the individual and make the individual go above and beyond,” McGregor says. For example, she recommends that managers design a process for teams to suggest and implement improvements in their day-to-day work.
“Usually, people come up with these huge ideas that are going to take hundreds of hours to do or require the tech team or executives to get involved,” she says. “But after a little bit of practice, people will start to come up with [small changes] that might take an extra 15 minutes here or 30 extra minutes there but make a huge difference to our efficiency, to our customers, and to what we’re doing in our work.” For instance, an employee might see a way to collapse three tasks—that typically take about 20 minutes each—into one, thereby saving the better part of an hour.
Building a Culture of Autonomy at Work
Increasing employee autonomy at work, while still maintaining an appropriate level of oversight, is a process. One relatively simple way to get started is by remaking the typical status update meeting into a problem-solving session, McGregor says. “Make sure that every person has an interesting problem to solve. Do all of the updates before the meeting and spend the meeting time actually discussing and problem-solving together the things that are really difficult or interesting or tricky or meaningful.”
Sethi suggests that companies create formal frameworks, such as regular brainstorming sessions, for employees to innovate around specific problems. He suggests using proven methods such as design-thinking techniques. “Some companies, when they really need to innovate, have design sessions where they bring people together and say, ‘We need to break the back of a business problem.’” The key is to “create a culture where people are comfortable bringing ideas and being able to respectfully challenge an existing process,” he says.
Zak agrees. Being comfortable bringing ideas to the table is crucial, he says, adding that above everything else, employers have to foster environments of psychological safety where workers won’t be punished for suggesting ideas, even if they ultimately fail. “If I’m stressed out, I have little bandwidth to spend on being productive, connecting to others, and doing the things that are going to make me effective at work and feel good about being there,” he says.
Bonding with other team members is crucial to worker engagement and employee retention—especially in remote and hybrid work, where face-to-face interactions may be few and far between. Zak stresses that working autonomously does not—and should not—mean working solo. “No one works alone, and I want to be in this safe environment where I can work on my own but pull in other humans when I need them.”