Sorting out the return to work: give employees autonomy to decide for themselves

Sorting out the return to work: give employees autonomy to decide for themselves
What will our daily routines be like as we return to work after COVID?

The question is on everyone’s mind, and companies are considering all kinds of arrangements, including working from home part time; working from home full time; working at the office full time; working at the office four days a week; and working at the office on specified days.

Through all this experimentation, and the backlash that has met some companies as they push for their preferred working arrangement (like Google , Apple and JP Morgan constraining people’s ability to work from home), some employers lose sight of one criterion that should drive which work arrangements they pick: their employees’ autonomy of choice.

Employees value autonomy greatly, more than some employers fully appreciate. A pre-COVID study of how people use their lunch break at work showed that employees’ level of energy at the end of the workday didn’t depend on whether they ate alone at their desk or with others outside the office building. What really mattered was whether the employees could freely choose how to spend their lunch break. When they had the autonomy to decide what worked for them on any given day, that’s when they did best.

Likewise, employees who feel that their manager supports their autonomy are more satisfied, and their satisfaction is reflected in better performance evaluations and healthier psyches. Conversely, research clearly shows that when employees do not have the autonomy to decide for themselves how to get organized at work, this lack of control damages their job satisfaction and physical health while increasing their mental strain.

Ultimately, this is about power, which is the capacity to influence the behaviour of others. Power comes from control over valued resources, and companies can influence the behaviour of their employees more effectively if they give them access to a psychological resource that they dearly value: autonomy, the ability to make choices of one’s own volition. Indeed, most people seek power not so much to influence the behaviour of others, but to have control over their own choices.

As long as employees have , autonomy is likely to improve their performance. The sooner employers give their employees control over where and how they perform their jobs, the faster they’ll find work arrangements that get the best of our workers, because they work best for them, too. Making this leap toward employee autonomy requires companies to understand that power is not a zero-sum game . Empowering employees does not mean relinquishing power; it means creating mutually beneficial work relationships. The are positioning themselves well for the future of work .

Should employers be concerned that employees might abuse their autonomy and pick work arrangements that allow them to check out and be lazy? Not at all. This is because autonomy is not the only psychological resource people value. People also greatly value achievement and affiliation .

The desire to achieve, to feel competent, runs deep, and it leads people to want to succeed, to become good at what they do. One of the best ways for a manager to improve the work lives of employees is to give them a sense of meaningful progress , incremental as it may be. Forward momentum, a feeling of improvement and increased mastery, is what boosts employee engagement and creativity. For most people, then, it wouldn’t be all that satisfying to slack off at home and see themselves achieve nothing in their work life, especially when their contributions at work are recognized and valued.

People vary in how much they value autonomy, achievement and affiliation at any point in time, but employers can be sure that some combination of these three psychological resources will matter to employees. Granting employees access to them will allow companies to elicit behaviours that make both employees and the organization better off.

Julie Battilana is the Joseph C. Wilson professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the Alan L. Gleitsman professor of social Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, where she is the founder and faculty chair of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative. Tiziana Casciaro is a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management and holds the Marcel Desautels chair in integrative thinking at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. They are the authors of “Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business.”



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