8 Practical Tips to Get Autonomy in the Workplace Right [+ How Buffer Succeeded]

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8 Practical Tips to Get Autonomy in the Workplace Right [+ How Buffer Succeeded]

Companies that foster autonomy in the workplace show higher rates of employee motivation and engagement and have less turnover. In this article, we will take a deep dive into workplace autonomy and share 8 ways in which HR professionals can support this.    

What is autonomy in the workplace? 
How autonomy differs from flexibility and remote working 
What does autonomy in the workplace look like
Benefits of autonomy in the workplace
8 HR tips for creating a culture of autonomy in the workplace 
Case study: How Buffer created autonomy in the workplace

What is autonomy in the workplace?

Put simply, workplace autonomy is about giving employees the freedom to decide independently how and when they want to work. In some cases job autonomy even includes what employees want to work on.

There are, however, some nuances to be made here.

Many jobs don’t allow people to decide when they want to work because of practical reasons. In those cases, employee autonomy could be defined as giving people the freedom to work in a way that suits them best. This can include: 

  • The order in which they do their tasks
  • Being able to make decisions on their own 
  • The pace at which they work 
  • Being able to solve problems on their own
  • The control they have over their tasks.

The fact that employees have a certain autonomy at work does not mean that there are no limits. They can decide how they want to do their job as long as it’s in line with both the overarching organizational and team goals. 

Autonomy at work vs. personal autonomy 

There is a distinct difference between workplace autonomy and personal autonomy. 

The former gives people autonomy within the boundaries of the team and the organization they are a part of, while the latter gives people full autonomy over the goals they want to set and how they want to achieve those. 

A lack of workplace autonomy 

At the opposite side of the autonomy spectrum we have (among other things) micromanagement. This management style is often characterized by a manager who closely observes, controls, and/or reminds their team members of the work that needs to be done.

Micromanagement – and a lack of autonomy in the workplace – negatively affects employee motivation, engagement and performance. One survey revealed that of the employees reporting into a micromanager:

  • 69% indicated that they considered changing jobs due to the micromanagement, and;  
  • 36% changed jobs. 

Another survey showed that:

  • 55% claimed micromanagement had hurt their job performance, and; 
  • 68% said that it had decreased their morale. 

How autonomy differs from flexibility and remote working 

Autonomy in the workplace is not the same as flexibility or remote work. In fact, giving office workers the option to work from home 2 days a week has very little to do with autonomy. 

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With employee autonomy, everyone is recognized to have different preferences and, therefore, every person has a different way of working that allows them to perform at their best. 

In other words: nobody knows better what works for you than you do so you are responsible for getting the work done on time and to the expected quality standard. Whether that is from the office or at home, and in your sweatpants or all suited up.   

Dr Dieter Veldsman on Autonomy and Flexibility

What does autonomy in the workplace look like

Employee autonomy will vary from one company to another and probably even from one team to another. There are, however, a few characteristics of workplace autonomy that we can distinguish: 

  • Employees have a certain decision-making power 
  • Managers assign projects, deadlines and some guidelines, but they trust their team members to get the job done   
  • If possible, employees decide when and where they work
  • Managers are available to provide support when necessary
  • Employees decide how they work. 

Benefits of autonomy in the workplace

There are various compelling reasons why organizations should be fostering workplace autonomy. In this section, we’ve listed a few them. 

Advantages of workplace autonomy for employees:

  • Increased happiness. Employees are 12% more likely to report being happy with their job when they have freedom and autonomy in their work environment.  
  • Better work-life balance. People who have greater control over what they work on during a day (within parameters) are able to balance their work life with their personal life responsibilities.
  • Increased well-being. Feeling trusted and supported by your manager and the organization coupled with the ability to operate autonomously decreases stress and increases people’s overall well-being.
  • More time for creativity. In an environment that fosters job autonomy employees have more opportunities for creativity. Managers care more about the results than about monitoring their team every single minute of the day which gives employees space for creativity and intrapreneurship.  
  • Increased job satisfaction. Autonomy in the workplace makes people feel more responsible, taken seriously, and valued. This, in turn, leads to higher levels of job satisfaction. 

Advantages of workplace autonomy for the organization:

  • Employees are more engaged. Autonomy empowers people and empowered employees are more engaged.   
  • Increased creativity and innovation. Employee autonomy enhances creativity and, by extension, leads to more innovation.  
  • Better decision-making and improved customer service. Fostering autonomy in the workplace improves peoples’ decision-making skills. This, in turn, can positively impact the quality of the customer service your organization offers. 
  • Better productivity and less turnover. Unsurprisingly, the benefits mentioned above lead to an increase in employee productivity, better overall morale and less turnover.

Examples of autonomy in the workplace 

#1. Employees choose their own working hours 

Some people do their best work in the morning while others peak from 5 pm onwards. Giving employees the option to set their own schedule, to the extent that is possible within the business context, is one way to increase employee autonomy. 

Being able to set their own hours is also something that many knowledge workers have high on their wishlist. A survey among more than ten thousand participants found that 95% want to decide for themselves what their schedule looks like.

#2. Employees are equipped to make their own decisions 

One of the ideas behind workplace autonomy is to give more responsibility in getting the job done to the employee. Importantly though, employees need to be able to make their own decisions in order to have the ability to work autonomously. 

As such, they need to know: 

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  • When they can make decisions on their own
  • What tools (financial and other) are at their disposal to do so
  • Where there the decision-making mandate ends.   

#3. Employees are involved in goal setting

Employee autonomy also means giving people the opportunity to take ownership of their own performance, growth, and career development as well as involving them in setting team goals.

Think for instance of: 

  • Co-creating their growth path 
  • Involving employees in setting their own goals and KPIs
  • Asking the team members to suggest goals for the team.
How HR Can Create a Culture of Autonomy

8 HR tips for creating a culture of autonomy in the workplace 

As powerful as it can be for the organization and the employee, if not done well autonomy can lead to chaos, confusion, and complacency among employees. It could also not be for all employees. Therefore, a well thought-out, structured approach is required.   

There are various ways in which HR can help to create a culture of autonomy within the organization. Let’s discuss 8 ideas to consider.

1. Define what autonomy looks like in your organization

As mentioned earlier, employee autonomy will look different in every organization. Therefore, start by clearly defining what autonomy means in your company and how this aligns with the organization’s goals and values.

2. Develop a framework and policies that support autonomy 

Based on your company’s definition of autonomy, you can develop a framework that supports that autonomy and the policies that come with this. 

By developing specific policies for various business areas, you will provide employees the freedom to make decisions, solve problems, and manage their work without undue interference. 

Next, make sure that employees understand the boundaries and expectations for autonomy.    

HR tip 

Developing policies is one thing; ensuring employees are aware of them is another. Communicate about your company’s framework for employee autonomy via various channels; weekly newsletters, managers, company chats, info sessions, etc.

How Amazon developed policies to support autonomy

Amazon is a technology and retail giant that has embraced employee autonomy in its workplace policies. The company offers flexible work hours, encourages creative problem-solving, and provides employees with the necessary resources to make autonomous decisions. 

Additionally, Amazon also created an internal equity compensation program for employees to invest in themselves and share equity in the company’s success, according to Harvard Business Review.

3. Train managers 

Offering employees autonomy requires a certain type of management. It requires trust and giving employees space while, at the same time, being available in case your team members need advice or guidance. It also requires the ability to delegate and share responsibility.

Managing a team in an organization that encourages employee autonomy will come more naturally to some people than to others. As HR, you can support managers by providing them with adequate training.

4. Celebrate successes 

Try to create a habit of celebrating examples of employee autonomy in the company. This can be done at a team level but also at an organizational level. Encourage managers to take a moment during a team meeting to highlight a situation in which, for example, one of their team members autonomously decided how they successfully handled an issue with a customer.  

HR tip 

Create a channel in your organization’s chat tool where employee achievements are shared and celebrated.

How we celebrate successes at AIHR

Celebrating successes doesn’t have to be expensive or grand. What matters is that, as a team, you take a moment to recognize an achievement. Too often, we run from one achievement to the next without realizing what we’ve accomplished. 

At AIHR, we often celebrate our employees’ achievements with cake and champagne. The cake is sometimes personalized with an (edible) picture of the person who achieved their goal, and AIHR employees in the office come together to celebrate and toast to their achievement. Those who are working remotely join via a video call. 

5. Perceive mistakes as learnings

If you want to encourage job autonomy, people need to have the freedom to experiment – within the existing framework – and for their experiments to go ‘wrong’. This requires a different way of looking at mistakes.

Changing people’s perception of mistakes and creating an environment where people are open about their mistakes takes time. A few things that can help with this process are: 

  • Encouraging managers to admit their own mistakes and discuss learnings with their team.
  • Celebrating mistakes that have been turned into successes or critical learnings. 
  • Creating a formal platform where learning can be shared.

6. Equip employees with the right tools 

Employees can’t work autonomously without the right tools. What these tools are will differ per team and department and even per person. A customer service team may, for instance, require a specific budget that they can use autonomously to solve customer issues. 

HR tip 

Ask employees what tools they need to do their job autonomously. They likely know better than anyone else what is required to work effectively. Use a simple survey to find out what tools they require.

How the Ritz-Carlton equips employees to autonomously solve customer issues

At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company employees can autonomously spend up to USD 2000 per guest to resolve customer issues without involving a manager. What’s interesting to note here is that while the total dedicated amount could, in theory, be used by employees to solve a customer issue, in practice, it rarely is. 

The average actual amount used on an incident is often much lower than the dedicated amount available. 

As the Ritz-Carlton describes it: “There is much power for all of our Ladies & Gentlemen knowing that we truly trust them with an amount that large, per incident. They are able to make decisions in the moment to quickly resolve a guest issue or to make an experience beautiful and memorable (or both).”  

7. Measure success

Based on your organization’s definition of autonomy, you can establish metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure employee autonomy, engagement, and productivity. This is crucial if you want to find out whether or not your autonomy efforts are working – and where a little fine-tuning is needed.  

8. Be patient

Autonomy in the workplace isn’t something that magically happens overnight, especially if the people in your organization haven’t been given it before.

HR tip 

Keep the conversation going. Regularly check in with managers and employees to find out what challenges they encounter and where the bottlenecks lie.  

Case study: How Buffer created autonomy in the workplace

Buffer, the number 1 social media scheduling company in the UK, wanted to scale its team without losing its autonomy. 

Growing a team can often lead to some employees feeling like they are no longer making an impact, and Buffer wanted to ensure that they continued to scale while maintaining their core value of autonomy in the workplace.

This led to what Buffer called empowered accountability

“We want to ensure that team members lean into their expertise when making decisions and providing support,” Åsa Nyström, VP of Customer Advocacy, explains. “We want to remove hesitation about decision-making and to enable our team to support our customers the best we can.”

What empowered accountability looks like

Within the customer advocacy team, empowered accountability translates into: 

  • Customer service employees are able to make the decisions necessary to positively affect their customers’ experiences.
  • Customer service employees are able to work with Buffer’s engineering and product teams and provide insights.
  • Team members are able to mentor their peers.
  • Team members are able to own their professional growth.

Of course, there are certain things to keep in mind when encouraging autonomy in the workplace without creating chaos. Buffer strikes the right balance by:

  • Explaining the ‘why’ behind empowered accountability
  • Giving power
  • Making sure the team has a clear idea about their scope and their area of responsibility 
  • Creating an environment where people are encouraged to learn, take initiative, and fail safely 
  • Ensuring managers feel empowered too. 

The results of empowered accountability at Buffer

The results of Buffer’s empowered accountability initiative have been very positive. Among other things, the company saw:

  • Members of the customer support team were not only engaged and motivated by their work, but also passionate to pursue a career within customer support and to continue to remain at Buffer.
  • The team has become more aware of their impact on the business. 
  • People feel more accountable and are more invested in the goals and results. 

Key takeaway 

It’s clear that autonomy in the workplace can have tremendous benefits for both employees and the organization. To achieve autonomy within the organization, HR must ensure that structures are established to provide employees with parameters to work within and celebrate successes to continuously instill a culture of autonomy.  

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