How autonomy is redefining work
The modern workplace is seeing a major overhaul, thanks both to new technologies that make new types of work possible, and changing attitudes that challenge norms that have existed for decades. At the nexus of these two influences is the rise of workplace autonomy - the tendency for employees to have more say in their daily responsibilities and control over their own working conditions.
20 Apr 2018 16:22
So why is autonomy starting to become more popular, and what does it mean for the future of work? The modern age of autonomy
There are several factors, related to both technology and cultural attitudes, working to make autonomy more prevalent in today’s work environment:
How autonomy is changing work
- Remote work. One recent survey suggested that 43 percent of American workers do at least some of their work remotely, and that number will only grow over time. Thanks to better devices, apps, and connectivity, it’s more possible than ever to have a remote workforce — and remote workers are naturally more autonomous. They can’t be directly supervised (at least, not in conventional ways), and are therefore afforded more trust to handle their responsibilities.
- The gig economy. The gig economy has also been referred to as the freedom economy, because it has allowed more professionals to carve their own career paths. Rather than working full-time for one business, individuals can create their own personal brands and attract their own clients, establishing their own hours, terms, rates, and projects. Independent contractors may miss out on some full-time benefits, but they’re far more autonomous than their typical full-time counterparts.
- Corporate hierarchy dissolution. The conventional corporate hierarchy is starting to feel out of date, with more organisations opting for agility and organisational adaptability. Straightforward “food chains” within organisations are starting to become looser, with less focus on the chain of command, and more focus on achieving specific outcomes. Accordingly, workers have become more empowered to take care of their own responsibilities, holding themselves accountable rather than being held accountable by a higher-up.
- Examples and mimicry. We’re also seeing the emergence of businesses that have used employee autonomy for amazing results they may not have gotten otherwise. For example, Google famously allowed its employees a portion of their time to work on any project they wanted — and it resulted in some of Google’s best and most profitable products. Other companies see these types of results, and can’t help but want to mimic the strategies that led them there.
But is all this extra autonomy a good thing? It certainly has its share of benefits:
- Higher morale. Studies have shown that higher levels of autonomy in the workplace are correlated with higher morale (and therefore, productivity). Employees who get to decide their own projects and work standards feel more empowered and independent, and tend to be happier in the workplace because of it. Happy employees remain at their chosen jobs longer, and are more productive during the time they’re there.
- Flexibility and options. Having a sense of autonomy also allows employees more career flexibility, and a wider range of options. Because they can choose which clients to take on, or which projects to tackle, they can specifically target work that plays to their strengths, and ultimately get more value out of every hour they spend working.
- Individual careers. Autonomy is also allowing employees to focus on their individual contributions; they can no longer succeed only by riding the coattails of the entire team, or the entire company. Instead, they have to prove their own worth, so they work harder to do it.
- Innovation. Forcing people to work as a single collective stifles innovation. Teams without autonomy are more likely to experience groupthink, and follow one specific path, rather than branching out into new directions. Accordingly, workplaces with higher employee autonomy tend to be more innovative over the long term.
- Health. There’s even evidence to suggest that a lack of job control is correlated with an increased risk of heart disease. This suggests that having more autonomy in your own job could help you decrease stress, improve your health outcomes, and ultimately live a longer, healthier life.
Overall, higher workplace autonomy could benefit individuals, companies, and the overall economy — and we already have the technology in place to allow it. The question is, how fast will managers and supervisors be willing to make the transition, and how much trust will they be willing to give their workers? Only time will tell.