Legendary rock singer Janis Joplin once sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Employers may not have much to lose when it comes to giving their employees some added freedom. Workers who feel they are free to make choices in the workplace and be held accountable for them are happier and more productive than employees who are more restricted.
The potential problem is that there’s no universal cross-cultural definition of autonomy. Still, there are specific strategies you can employ to encourage employee freedom and provide a sense of autonomy without putting your company at risk. On the contrary, you’ll likely experience an increase in employee loyalty and commitment in return.
Autonomy in the workplace can take many different forms. Organizations may let employees set their own schedules, choose how to do their work or elect to work from home. No matter how autonomy is defined, when people feel they have more latitude, the results are impressive. Potential benefits include greater employee commitment, better performance, improved productivity and lower turnover.
“Autonomy is especially likely to lead to better productivity when the work is complex or requires more creativity,” said Marylène Gagné, a professor at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business in Montreal. “In a very routine job, autonomy doesn’t have much impact on productivity, but it can still increase satisfaction, which leads to other positive outcomes. When management makes decisions about how to organize work, they should always think about the effect on people’s autonomy.”
Gagné is studying leadership behavior in several countries, including China and Italy, and acknowledges that where your business is based may affect the autonomy you provide employees and the positive results such freedom engenders.
“We’re trying to see how leadership behaviors affect employee motivation, and if the same behaviors in different countries have the same effect,” Gagné said. “Sometimes, they do not. For example, in some cultures, bosses can’t ask the opinion of subordinates because it makes them appear weak. So, managers in these environments have to find other ways to make people feel autonomous. There is no simple recipe.”
Giving employees more autonomy may seem daunting. If you award too much freedom, will operations suffer? That’s an understandable fear. But the strategies below are designed to reimagine the workplace as an environment in which workers can have more say in their work experience without impacting the organization negatively. In exchange, you’ll likely see higher employee engagement, lower turnover and a stronger commitment to your business and its mission.
In business, as in life, mindset matters. Business owners and managers who lead from a mindset of mutual respect, trust and accountability — and who hire for skill and potential — are more likely than authoritarian leaders to have engaged, loyal and committed staff. With that in mind, the first step to providing more freedom to employees comes from how you think about the role of management.
Traditionally, managers give orders and employees follow them. Instead, you should view the role of your managers as coaches instead of authoritarians. Coaches guide, suggest and provide structure for their teams. They are still the leader, but their focus is on teaching and guiding, not ordering. This mindset also puts managers at the service of the team instead of the other way around. When managers work in service of their employees, team members can focus their energy on customers and productivity increases.
Just ask Danny Wegman, the chairman of Wegmans Food Markets. On the company’s website, Wegman is quoted as saying, “When our people feel cared about and respected, they turn around and make our customers feel that way, too.” Notably, his business is one of only five companies recognized by FORTUNE’s 100 Best Companies to Work For every year since 1998.
Instead of coming up with a game plan for how to implement employee freedom for the entire organization, consider allowing managers to determine what works best for them and their team. Give managers the freedom to give their direct reports more freedom in whatever fashion makes the most sense for them.
Each office, department or team in a company should have the autonomy to function in the best way for its culture and needs. Those that work most closely together will likely know the best way to make changes that benefit everyone involved.
This approach has worked well for Berry Global, a plastic packaging maker in the Midwest. CEO Tom Salmon shared with the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) how local managers are empowered to make changes based on what they’re hearing from on-site employees.
Managers are normally viewed as problem-solvers, but you may want to consider instead asking employees to identify the policies that are hindering productivity. You can then invite them to come up with changes that address those challenges and boost efficiency.
Take the time to gather honest employee feedback about what’s working and not working in your organization. No one knows better than them how easy or hard it is to carry out day-to-day operations. That means they’ll likely also know best the solutions worth implementing. While some mistakes can be costly, giving workers room to experiment with trial and error can embolden them to feel more confident in their choices.
>> Learn More: If You Listen, Your Employees Will Step Up
One of the most unique job benefits these days is no official work hours. Allowing employees to decide when to work may seem like a recipe for chaos, and it isn’t a viable option for all businesses. But what if you leveraged the flexibility of the global talent economy?
Zapier, the app integration company, has more than 40,000 employees across 17 time zones in dozens of countries. As a fully remote organization, Zapier encourages its employees to work from anywhere, offering freedom and flexibility. In return, the company benefits from a more diversified and larger talent pool that can provide around-the-clock platform support without graveyard shifts or on-call roles.
If you aren’t ready to give employees complete freedom over their schedules or aren’t large enough to go global, consider taking steps that give your staffers more freedom without giving up all control. For example, you can:
You can also let employees determine their work site. Working from home can provide more flexibility, but it isn’t the only option. If you have multiple locations or buildings in the same or different cities, consider letting employees choose the property they work from.
This goes back to the point about running your workforce like an authoritarian government versus one where your leaders are coaches. Instead of dictating to your employees what they should strive to accomplish, challenge them to set their own objectives and provide support as they work to achieve them. Let team members identify what doing well within the company means to them, and they will be more inclined to meet the goal.
Michelin is one notable organization that lets employees set their performance goals, on top of encouraging its workers to set their own hours. The success of these initiatives is apparent in some of the company’s recent honors, which include being named one of the best large employers by Forbes and one of the best employers for diversity in 2022.
All businesses should aim to create a great employee benefits plan. What could make it even better is asking employees what’s most important to them when it comes to compensation and perks. Give staff members the opportunity to choose the benefits that will make them feel most appreciated — and make you the most attractive employer.
Survey employees and allow them to select from options like a higher pay rate, more comprehensive insurance and longer paid vacations, for instance. You can then provide the benefits that are most meaningful to your employees, which will likely increase your employee retention. [Learn how to achieve better employee retention rates.]
Remember, a little can go a long way. Giving employees more freedom is often a process. Too much change at one time can be overwhelming for managers and team members alike. However, a little freedom can have a big impact on how employees feel about their job and the company they work for. Just as you want to treat clients well to build customer loyalty, you can benefit from treating your staff well too. If you want happy, loyal employees, start by offering them some trust and freedom.
Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.