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The Impact of Autonomy on Workplace Success – With People Scientist Heather Angiolini

The Impact of Autonomy on Workplace Success – With People Scientist Heather Angiolini

When employees have the freedom to bring their own passion and creativity to their work, amazing things happen. And that’s what this article is all about; autonomy.

Heather Angiolini, People Scientist at Hive, has shared some insightful perspectives on how autonomy can be assessed and how it can contribute to vibrant, engaged teams. Let’s look at why autonomy matters and how HR leaders can harness its power within their organisation.

What does autonomy really mean?

what is autonomy

At Hive, autonomy is assessed with three simple, yet powerful statements:

 

  • “I believe I have a say on matters that impact the work I do.”
  • “I feel trusted and empowered to achieve great things working here.”
  • “I have the level of freedom and autonomy that I would expect in my role.”

 

These statements capture the essence of autonomy: having a voice, feeling empowered, and experiencing the freedom to perform one’s role effectively.

Daniel Pink, one of my favourite psychologists, expands on this by breaking autonomy into four key areas: task, time, technique, and team. True autonomy means having control over what you do, when you do it, how you do it, and with whom you do it. The more control employees have in these areas, the more engaged they become.

The leadership gap: perception vs. reality

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Here’s an interesting twist: many leaders think they’re giving their teams plenty of autonomy, but employees often feel differently. This stresses the importance of gathering employee feedback so leaders and managers can understand the state of play where autonomy is concerned.

This disconnect can be eye-opening. By including questions about autonomy in employee surveys, leaders can get a clearer picture of the real situation. It’s about aligning perceptions with reality and making sure that the freedom you think you’re offering is actually being felt by your team.

Finding the balance

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While autonomy is crucial, it doesn’t mean giving employees free rein without any structure. This is important because whilst autonomy is great, teams still need direction. 

The key is to provide clear goals and expectations while allowing employees the freedom to decide how to achieve them. This balance ensures that employees feel empowered yet guided, preventing confusion and fostering continuous growth and success.

Sometimes, this level of autonomy can lead to employees learning new skills they can bring to the time, finding new ways of doing things, improving processes, all because they have the freedom to explore.

The tangible benefits of autonomy

benefits of autonomy

Autonomy isn’t just a buzzword; it has real, tangible benefits for both employees and organisations. 

Research by Gartner shows that employees who feel they have autonomy are 2.3 times more likely to stay with their organisation. And HR leaders know the struggles and cost of re-hiring for roles when employee turnover is on the up. 

They are also 1.9 times less likely to experience fatigue, which translates to better overall wellbeing and job satisfaction. This can then have a positive knock on effect on their performance.

Autonomy across different sectors

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Hive’s data reveals some interesting variations in how autonomy is perceived across different sectors. When we asked the questions we mentioned earlier, this is what they revealed for the different sectors:

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The private sector leads the pack, likely due to its agile and non-hierarchical nature. On the other hand, government organisations, with their rigid bureaucratic processes, tend to lag behind. These insights highlight the need for tailored strategies to enhance autonomy based on specific sector challenges.

Companies that get autonomy right

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Some companies are setting the bar high when it comes to fostering autonomy:

 

  • Google: Engineers spend 20% of their time on self-initiated projects, leading to innovations like Gmail and Google Maps.

 

Google shows trust in its employees’ ability to identify valuable projects, which boosts morale and engagement. And you may be surprised to know that over 50% of Google’s largest revenue-generating products have come out of 20% time, proving that giving employees the freedom to explore can lead to significant breakthroughs.

 

  • Patagonia: Allow employees to set their own schedules, even taking breaks for personal activities like surfing, show a high level of trust and respect for individual needs.

 

Flexible scheduling reduces stress and burnout, leading to higher job satisfaction and productivity. This policy aligns with Patagonia’s brand as an outdoor company, reinforcing its commitment to a balanced lifestyle.

 

  • Hubspot: Offer unlimited time off, with minimal bureaucracy, empower employees to manage their work-life balance effectively.

 

By removing strict controls, HubSpot shows trust in its employees to make decisions that are best for them and the company. The policy encourages employees to take care of their personal needs without the fear of bureaucratic hurdles, leading to higher morale and loyalty. When employees feel trusted and empowered, they are more likely to be productive and committed to their work.

Strategies for HR leaders to enhance autonomy

strategies for autonomy

HR leaders can play a pivotal role in fostering autonomy within their organisations. Here are some practical strategies:

 

Empower decision making: Actively delegate decision-making for tasks that impact how employees do their core work. Allow teams to choose technologies, allocate budgets, and approach projects in their own way. This not only boosts motivation but also fosters a sense of ownership.

Flexible work arrangements: Ditch rigid hierarchies and job descriptions. Offering flexibility in when and where employees work can significantly improve work-life balance. Remote work and flexible hours (if your industry can offer it) can accommodate personal preferences, leading to higher job satisfaction and productivity.

Recognise and reward autonomy: Celebrate employee-driven initiatives and independent decision-making. Implement recognition programs like Hive Five’s, where employees can acknowledge each other’s contributions. This reinforces the value of autonomy and encourages a culture of innovation.

Respect individuality: Embrace and respect individual differences. Allow employees to bring their unique perspectives and approaches to their work. This not only fosters a more inclusive work environment but also leads to more innovative solutions.

 

These strategies are a great start to ensuring people feel trusted, valued, and empowered in their roles. When autonomy is embedded in the company culture, employees are more likely to be engaged, motivated, and committed to their work. 

This not only enhances individual performance but also drives the overall success of the organisation. By prioritising autonomy, HR leaders can create a workplace where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and contribute to meaningful outcomes.

The dark side of autonomy

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While autonomy is a powerful tool for enhancing employee engagement and performance, it must be balanced with clear alignment to organisational goals. Without this balance, autonomy can lead to confusion, inefficiency, and even chaos.

Here’s a quick look at different scenarios:

autonomy matrix

The goal is to provide high autonomy with clear alignment, ensuring that employees know what’s expected and feel empowered to achieve it.

Striking the right balance

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The goal is to provide high autonomy with clear alignment, ensuring that employees know what’s expected and feel empowered to achieve it. Here are some key points to consider:

clear communication

Clear communication of goals: Ensure that employees understand the company’s objectives and how their work contributes to these goals. Regularly communicate the vision and expected outcomes.

empowerment with guidelines

Empowerment with guidelines: Give employees the freedom to choose how to achieve their tasks but provide guidelines to ensure their efforts are aligned with organisational goals. This could include setting boundaries, providing resources, and offering support when needed.

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Continuous feedback: Provide ongoing feedback to help employees stay aligned with goals while enjoying the autonomy to innovate and solve problems. Constructive feedback helps maintain focus and direction without stifling creativity.

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Leadership support: Leaders should be approachable and supportive, offering clarity and assistance when needed. Empowering leadership fosters an environment where autonomy thrives within a structured framework.

By finding the right balance between autonomy and alignment, organisations can create a work environment that maximises both employee satisfaction and performance. This approach not only drives individual success but also propels the organisation towards achieving its strategic objectives.

Heather’s final thoughts on the power of autonomy in the workplace

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Autonomy is a powerful driver of engagement, loyalty, and wellbeing. By understanding its dimensions, recognising sector-specific challenges, and implementing strategic initiatives, organisations can unlock the full potential of their workforce. Supportive autonomy leads to thriving employees and, ultimately, thriving organisations.

HR leaders have the unique opportunity to transform their workplaces by fostering autonomy. It’s not just about management trends; it’s about creating an environment where employees feel empowered, engaged, and motivated to achieve great things. Autonomy is the key to a vibrant and successful workplace.

If you have any more questions on autonomy and how this can work within your workplace, chat to one of our experts. Heather also mentions the impact of autonomy on engagement throughout her article – this is vital to create a thriving workplace. Find out more about engagement and how your organisation stacks up against others in your industry with Hive’s employee engagement benchmarking report. 

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