AUTONOMY AT WORK ISN’T JUST A NICE TO HAVE, IT’S CRUCIAL FOR EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

If you want your employees to give their best, offer them autonomous freedoms! That’s especially the case for workers doing routinised jobs like a deskless or shift-based workforce.

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There’s a widespread but mistaken belief, among both employers and employees, that job satisfaction is closely correlated with things such as remuneration and occupational prestige. Things aren’t so simple in the real world, where people value things such as autonomy around their work life balance, more than corner offices.
 

It turns out in the data from surveys on professionals in different roles that “members of the clergy are happier than CEOs”. Likewise, if you’re a chiropractor, it’s apparent you are more content than a dentist, and “nurses are more cheerful than surgeons”. Granted, you’re likely to enjoy your job if you’re a well-paid Software Engineer or Doctor. But, you’re also likely to enjoy it if you’re a modestly paid firefighter, physical therapist or teacher due to the high job satisfaction that accompanies these types of people first, caring roles.

Among HR theorists, there’s a consensus that while things such as money and prestige play some role in the way people feel about their jobs, the most important determining factors for job satisfaction are: autonomy, competence, relatedness and possibly beneficence. That is, regardless of the industry they are working in, workers want:

1) Some scope to arrange their work in a way that suits them

2) To feel they are good at their job

3) To feel that they are assisting other people (and possibly making the world a better place)

Job autonomy meaning

Worker autonomy might sound like a revolutionary concept, but it’s become par for the course for many white-collar workers over the last decade. In Australia and throughout the developed world, companies have increasingly been allowing their staff to work remotely and work whatever hours best suit them. There are also plenty of gig-economy contractors who’ve now spent years ‘working’ for the likes of Airtasker, Freelancer, Menulog and Uber. These contractors take it as read that they will be able to decide what hours they work and what jobs they will accept while they are working.      

Autonomy at work in practice

Not all employers can ensure their staff feel competent. Or arrange for them to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives and thereby improve the sum total of human happiness. But every employer can choose to provide their employee with some empowerment and autonomy at work. 

In the interests of calming the nerves of managers, executives and business owners, it should be noted that giving your staff some autonomy is not the same thing as letting them do whatever they want. In practice, it involves holding employees accountable for completing their assigned tasks by an agreed deadline but giving those employees a measure of freedom to complete those tasks when, where and how they like.

Why is autonomy in the workplace so important for engaging deskless shift workers? 

The ‘autonomous worker’ future is here, but it remains unevenly distributed. As noted, most knowledge workers are now given some autonomy by their employers. As a matter of law, gig-economy contractors have always had a free hand to choose when and how they work. Nonetheless, there are still many deskless workers who have very little say over when they work or how they go about completing their tasks.

It’s often more challenging to give deskless workers autonomy. It may not matter where, when or how an accountant completes a tax return, as long as they get it done by the end of the month. In contrast, a waitress, retail assistant or nurse needs to be at a specific location at a specific time.

Nonetheless, even within the constraints of running a hospital, shop or building site, employers often can grant their workers some empowerment and autonomy at work through these methods

  1. Choice of shifts: For instance, the barista can be given a choice of shifts, so it’s easier for them to balance their work and study commitments. 
  2. Ability to prioritise tasks and work through them in their own order: The retail worker can be trusted to choose whether they should be helping out at the checkout counter, or restocking shelves, or putting in orders with suppliers at any one time. Rather than being constantly surveilled and micromanaged by the site foreman, a labourer could be trusted to identify which work teams were most in need of assistance at any one time and to pitch in appropriately. 
  3. Choose the best method of communication that works for the whole team as individuals in your industry: Do you set up an internal team WhatsApp, team slack, or morning zoom call? Or do you choose to run all comms within a mobile workforce management app which links to shifts and hours worked? Ensuring each worker has a connection to their team in ways that all works for them will enable them to work more autonomously when they have visibility over what’s going on in other parts of the organisation. 

Meaningful work and employee engagement

It’s obvious why an employee would prefer more autonomy, but what’s in it for employers? Workers given some autonomy are likely to feel they are trusted. Workers who feel they are trusted are more likely to be engaged. Engaged workers are more likely to perform well and deliver great customer experiences – subsequently, engaged workers are much more likely to be valuable workers.    

Employee autonomy = lower staff turnover costs
It’s certainly true that employees can, and not infrequently do, abuse the trust of their employers. An employee given a free hand may choose to slack off. An employee entrusted with decision-making responsibility may make a bad decision and cost the business money. Business owners and managers are alert to these dangers, which is why many of them are inclined towards micromanaging.

But business owners and managers often fail to grasp that not giving staff autonomy and thereby diminishing their job satisfaction also creates costs. It’s not coincidental that workers with the least autonomy are also the least likely to hang around for long.

The real-world results of employers, such as Costco, which boast a much lower turnover rate than many of its competitors, prove what the academic research suggests. Workers with more autonomy are less likely to quit (and less likely to be terminated for underperformance).

More autonomy = stronger performance
While it’s difficult to quantify how much autonomy contributes to employee engagement, there’s no debate that it’s a significant factor. There’s abundant evidence that engaged employees produce better business outcomes. For example, in the process of conducting annual employee engagement surveys of the US workforce, Gallup has found that engaged workers are more attentive and productive, more likely to respect processes, standards and systems, are more fastidious about quality and safety, better at fostering cordial relations with customers and more dedicated to helping grow the business that employs them. Gallup found that “the behaviours of highly engaged business units result in 21 per cent greater profitability”. 

Taking the next step 

Autonomy ties into what HR types describe as ‘cultures of trust’. A ‘culture of trust’ is one in which employees are given some autonomy and trusted to exercise it sensibly. Harvard professor Paul Zak has found that “compared with people at low-trust companies, staff at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity,, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.”

If those figures are enough to convince you to transition your business from having a ‘culture of control’ to having a ‘culture of trust’, it’s advisable to walk before your run. Start by empowering employees to make lower-level decisions. For instance, giving junior staff the ability to refund dissatisfied customers for purchases under $50 without consulting their manager. Or investing in workforce management software that makes it easier for workers to see what shifts are available then pick the ones that don’t clash with their study, childcare, sporting or other commitments. 

How to improve autonomy for deskless, shift-based workers

  • Invest in a workforce management system that will empower your managers to make improving autonomy simple and compliant
  • It’s neither necessary nor advisable to go from 0 to 100 when transitioning to a ‘culture of trust’. Experiment with giving employees minor liberties to start with, such as the ability to work certain shifts they prefer, and see how they respond. 
  • Communicate and verbalise the transition across your business, be responsive and open to feedback – there’s not a one size fits all approach, so be prepared to make adjustments and experiment until you find the level of autonomy that works for you. 
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