For years, the belief that workers would slack off if they were allowed to work remotely was a prevailing objection many leaders had to WFH policies.
And when the pandemic broke out and workers had to go remote en masse, many managers expected to see a huge drop-off in employee productivity.
But that’s not what happened. Productivity surged during the pandemic. In a survey of 800 employers, a whopping 94% said employee productivity was the same or higher in spite of remote work.
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There are lots of reasons why employees continued to get their tasks done, maintained a high degree of collaboration, and stayed productive while working from home. These include:
- Better work-life balance
- A reduction in commute time
- Fewer workplace distractions.
But there’s also a very significant reason people were so productive: they had more autonomy.
In a workplace setting, employees may say they want the “flexibility” to choose their hours or where they work. But if you read between the lines, what they’re really saying is they want the freedom to do their best work. That’s autonomy.
The dictionary defines autonomy as the right of self-government. As a psychological concept, autonomy refers to a state of independence and the ability to determine one’s own behavior. And having a sense of autonomy plays a big role in behavior.
For example, research shows people are far more motivated to act when they feel they have control over the outcome.
Workplace studies have also shown a link between autonomy and higher job engagement, in part because workers may feel more challenged and inspired to do their best work. (This link is particularly strong for high performers.)
Meanwhile, still more research shows that workers who feel a strong sense of autonomy in their jobs are more likely to say they feel happy and satisfied at work.
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Amid concerns about The Great Resignation, companies are putting a great deal of thought into how to keep employees happy.
Not only do these studies suggest that focusing on autonomy is important in this sense, but research also shows that building an empowered, autonomous workforce can significantly improve both individual and group productivity.
So how can companies build and foster this important trait? Giving workers a strong sense of autonomy is about more than just letting them work from home.
When employees are working remotely, it’s understandable managers would want to check in to make sure they’re on top of their work. But to make workers feel autonomous—and reap the productivity benefits—resist the urge to micromanage.
Micromanaging sends a message to employees that they can’t be trusted to manage their workloads. It also erodes their sense of control at work. Instead, look for opportunities to give employees more ownership of their tasks and projects.
Building a culture of trust doesn’t mean taking the out of sight, out of mind approach. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Managers can help to grow autonomy by stepping up two-way communication via more one-on-ones, project milestone-based check-ins, and other such opportunities.
With more frequent and higher quality communication, managers can better empower workers to do their best work and tackle any challenges they face more autonomously.
When people have a voice in how things get done, they feel invested in the outcome. This principle is a central tenet of autonomy—and it’s a big reason why autonomy drives greater productivity at work.
Employers can further cultivate autonomy by giving employees more opportunities to inform the decisions that impact their work.
Whether it’s providing input on a strategy or deciding what steps to take in tackling a problem, giving workers a say invests them in the results. Seeking input even for smaller decisions can help grow autonomy.
The rise of hybrid and remote work introduced new challenges in the workforce. But it’s also creating new opportunities to give employees more control of their work lives—and that’s a great thing.
How businesses choose to administer autonomy—and to what degree—will differ from company to company. It’ll require a top-down change in workplace culture, leadership, and most importantly, the technology to support it.
At RingCentral, employee autonomy and our solution go hand in hand. We’ve been a work-from-anywhere company since the pandemic began—and we have every intention to keep it going.
Check out our eBook on how we made remote work a success.
Originally published Feb 08, 2022, updated Nov 08, 2023