Legendary rock singer Janis Joplin once sang, "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." Employers may, in fact, 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, according to an extensive research literature review.
The problem, however, is that there's no universal cross-cultural definition of autonomy.
Autonomy can take many different forms. Organizations may let employees set their own schedules, choose how to do their work or even 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, Canada. "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."
With the workplace constantly evolving and globalization increasingly important, cross-cultural research into workplace autonomy is more important than ever, the researchers said. Until recently, most management research was conducted in North America. As a result, managers in other countries have little to guide them as they develop techniques that work in their own cultural context.
To help address this lack, Gagné is now studying leadership behavior in several countries, including China and Italy.
"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."
The research is being published in the book Human Autonomy in Cross-Cultural Context: Perspectives on the Psychology of Agency, Freedom, and Well-Being (Springer), which was co-authored by Gagné and fellow Concordia professor Devasheesh Bhave.
Ways to provide employees with more freedom
Change your mindset.
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. To successfully change, you'll need to view the role of managers as coaches instead of authoritarians.
Coaches guide, suggest and provide structure for the team. They are still the leader, but the 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.
Allow managers to determine how to give more freedom.
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 employees more freedom.
Each plant, department or team in a company will function in its own way. Those that work most closely with them will likely know the best way to make changes that benefit everyone involved. This approach has worked well for the company Decathlon, which has over 80,000 employees.
Ask employees to identify and solve problems.
Managers are normally viewed as problem-solvers. However, many companies are now asking employees to identify the policies that are hindering productivity. Then allowing the employees to come up with changes that will aid productivity.
Allow employees to choose when and where to work.
Allowing everyone to set their own hours may seem like a recipe for chaos, and it isn’t a viable option for all businesses. However, a Michelin plant in Germany has done so, with surprising results. The company has almost doubled its cash flow over the last few years.
If you aren't ready to give employees complete freedom over their schedules, consider taking steps that allow them more freedom. Allowing employees to choose which shift they want to work, surveying employees about the working hours they prefer, and allowing them to schedule their own vacation days are all ways to provide more freedom without giving up complete control.
Holiday swaps are an option employed by Spotify. The company allows employees to work on any public holiday, then have the day off for a holiday they choose. Today's employees have diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. This allows them to celebrate the days that matter most to them.
Another option is to allow employees to determine where to work. Working from home can provide more flexibility. If you have multiple locations, consider letting employees choose the location they work from.
Let employees determine performance goals.
Michelin has also transitioned to letting employees set their performance goals. They may have a different perception of performance which is beneficial to the company as well. Putting customer satisfaction ahead of sales figures or quality over production numbers can have great results. Let employees identify what doing well within the company means to them, and they will be more inclined to meet the goal.
Give employees a save on pay, benefits and rewards.
Allowing employees to determine what is most important to them in terms of compensation will make them feel appreciated and make you a more attractive employer. Survey employees and allow them to select from options including higher pay rate, more comprehensive insurance and more paid vacation, for instance. You can then provide the benefits that are most meaningful to your employees, which increases employee retention.
N6A allows each employee to earn points based on individual, team and company achievements. They can then redeem these points for the perks they value the most. It’s a great way to incentivize hard work and provide a little more freedom to employees.
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 employers and employees. However, a little freedom can have a big impact on how employees feel about their job and the company.