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Autonomy in the Workplace: Why it Matters and How to Foster it

Autonomy in the Workplace: Why it Matters and How to Foster it

Work can be good for mental health, but how we work determines whether a job will be satisfying or draining. Autonomy in the workplace can help create a sense of accomplishment and well-being, which helps people stay engaged. Here are a few reasons to consider granting more autonomy at work—and how to make it happen.

Job autonomy definition

Most people say they want flexibility at work. Research by Jabra asked more than 5,000 employees around the world what was important to them. Most said employee flexibility was a higher priority than salary or benefits.

But what do workers mean by flexibility? As it turns out, behind that word is the more complicated concept of autonomy. What is autonomy in the workplace? Job autonomy means employees have some level of control over how they get work done, such as how they accomplish tasks, set deadlines, and where or when they work.

A workplace can be “flexible” without actually granting worker autonomy. For example, a manager might decide to be flexible with remote work by declaring Tuesdays and Thursdays work-from-home days. But that doesn’t help the employee who needs to work from home on Fridays rather than Tuesdays and Thursdays. True employee autonomy would allow that person to choose a work-from-home day that best fits their needs.

It’s important to note that granting more autonomy in the workplace doesn’t mean absolving employees of standards. Any workplace should set clearly defined goals for employees to reach—autonomy at work just gives them more freedom in how to reach them.

Examples of autonomy at work

What does job autonomy look like in practice? Here are a few examples of autonomy that companies have used to meet their employees’ needs while boosting productivity and engagement.

  • Let employees set their own schedule
  • Give employees a say in setting deadlines
  • Offer remote or hybrid work arrangements
  • Set goals and standards with input from team members
  • Let employees design their own process for completing tasks and projects
  • Request input on company benefits
  • Grant the freedom to expand duties when needed

Why is autonomy important?

We’ve all heard the term “micromanaging” used to describe bosses who try to exert too much control over employees. Characterized by a lack of autonomy, this type of management crushes innovation and blocks employees from developing decision-making and leadership skills, leaving them frustrated and disengaged.

By letting employees work autonomously and in ways that suit their preferences, you help them reach their full potential. One person may thrive on group collaboration, while another can’t concentrate until they’re alone. An early riser may do their best work at 8 a.m., while a night owl has barely switched on their brain for the day at that hour.

If you try to cram each of these people into the same schedule, process, and location, they’ll struggle to do their best work. As a result, they may lose motivation and become disengaged, which makes a lack of autonomy in the workplace costly for your organization.

Benefits of autonomy in the workplace

Increases employee motivation and productivity – While rewards like salary are important, researchers have found that people are more determined to do a good job when they have work autonomy. When employers honor people’s individual work style and let them make their own decisions, employees will be more motivated and fulfilled because the outcomes are likely to be perceived as the result of their own inherent abilities.

Inspires creative thinking – Many companies expect employees to come up with new ideas and strategies, but in a Gallup study, 35 percent of workers said they’re only given time to be creative a few times a year. By allowing employees to decide how they complete their tasks, autonomy in a job encourages people to find their own creative solutions. This leads to innovation, which can help businesses stay ahead of the competition.

Improves trust and job satisfactionResearch shows that autonomous workers report higher levels of job satisfaction and overall well-being. This makes sense—in any relationship, it’s easier to trust someone who trusts you, and it boosts our well-being to have mutually respectful, trusting relationships. Creating a culture of trust clears the way for innovation and collaboration, plus greater employee engagement and productivity.

Boosts employee retentionMore companies are starting to recognize the value of employee flexibility and autonomy in attracting and retaining talent. When people feel empowered and satisfied in their jobs, they’re more likely to stay, which saves significantly on recruitment, onboarding, and training costs.

Develops skills and leadership – Job autonomy lets people try new ways of working, solving problems, and collaborating with others. These experiences help them build new skills and become better leaders.

Does your organization need to focus on improving job autonomy? You can find out with a workforce assessment, which can help pinpoint whether your employees need greater flexibility and work autonomy to perform at their best. Following the assessment with manager training will allow you to implement any needed changes.

How to ask for more autonomy at work

If your employer discourages working autonomously, there are several ways you can ask for what you need. You can set the stage for a conversation about job autonomy by demonstrating your competence and capabilities before you sit down at the negotiating table. If you do great work and proactively make your workplace better, your manager will see that you’re intrinsically motivated. This is an important quality in an employee who is asking for more autonomy in work.

Familiarize yourself with how worker autonomy benefits employers, so you can explain why it would be best for your team and the company. Go into the conversation with some clear autonomy examples, what it might look like in your situation, and how it would support the company’s goals.

How employers can promote employee autonomy

Most employers recognize the benefits of autonomy in the workplace. In Lyra’s 2023 Workforce Mental Health Trends Forecast, most benefits leaders said they’ve already implemented or are considering offering personal mental health days, company-wide mental health days off, policies discouraging work emails or messaging after-hours, and policies encouraging employees to take breaks during the workday. Almost half (45 percent) of these leaders said their company offers the option for four-day workweeks, and 43 percent are considering offering it in 2023.

These are all excellent starting points for offering employees flexibility. Here are a few other strategies for promoting work autonomy.

Set clear goals and guidelines

Granting autonomy in work benefits both employers and workers, but you need clear guardrails to make it a win-win. For example, consider defining a few core working hours of the day and standard communication channels, and list appropriate and inappropriate locations for remote work. Introduce elements of employee autonomy one at a time so you can understand what’s working and what’s not. Above all, keep communication open to make sure everyone understands the expectations.

It’s also important to set goals for work and hold employees accountable for them. Your employees need to know what outcomes are expected. Otherwise, you may not get the work results you envisioned.

Allow for ownership

Once you’ve established goals and guidelines, let your employees be responsible for how they operate within them. This may mean letting team members decide how to do a task or the order in which tasks are completed. Different industries will, of course, have different levels of flexibility in this arena but in general, employees will be more motivated if they can “own” more aspects of the work.

Create psychological safety

Psychological safety frees employees from the fear that they’ll be ridiculed, punished, or looked down on when things don’t go as planned. When managers create this sense of safety, employees can get creative, take reasonable risks, and reach out for help quickly if something goes wrong with a task or project.

One way to create psychological safety is to approach failures as learning opportunities rather than placing blame. When something goes wrong, help employees unpack what happened and what can be learned for next time.

Reward good work

Employees need to know if the work they poured their ideas and creativity into got results. Some workplaces offer monetary or material awards for good work, but a reward can be as simple as public recognition and warm appreciation for a job well-done.

Be available to your team

Just because you don’t micromanage your team members doesn’t mean you’re absent from their work. Your feedback will help them hone their skills and ultimately grow their careers, so provide constructive evaluations whenever appropriate.

It’s also important to be available to support your employees. They may not always know the best way to proceed on a task or project, especially if they haven’t worked in a highly autonomous work environment before. Schedule regular check-ins and let workers know you’re there for them any time they need to ask for help or bounce ideas around.

Equip employees with the right tools

With enhanced autonomy in the workplace, workers need tools that set them up for success. For example, if job autonomy at your company means the option for remote work, your company will need to provide software solutions that allow workers to easily connect with one another virtually. If you decide to let employees set their own project deadlines, the team may need a shared tool where everyone can log their timelines so co-workers can plan around them.

Professional development opportunities, mentorship programs, versatile working spaces, and flexible benefits are just a few of the many tools you can use to empower your workforce as you offer more work autonomy.

Unleash your employees’ talent

When your employees have the freedom to work autonomously, knowing they’ll be held accountable for their goals, you’ll get the best version of their working selves and realize even better results at your company. Empower your people with the right tools, and see how far they’ll take your organization on the strengths of their own talents and motivation.

Promote a new way to work

Lyra offers workforce assessments and tools to create a culture of mental wellness.

Learn more about Workforce Transformation
About the reviewer
Keren Wasserman

Keren is the organizational development program manager on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Keren has a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago and has worked as a management consultant focused on large-scale change management implementations. She lives in Seattle where she spends her free time hiking, soaking up the PNW's most glorious mountain views.

Clinically reviewed by
Keren Wasserman
Organizational Development Program Manager
By The Lyra Team
3 of January 2023 - 8 min read
Mental health at work
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