Forget Flexibility. Your Employees Want Autonomy.

Flexibility now dominates the way we speak about the future of work. And while a new hybrid working survey shows that employees do indeed want flexibility, it also shows that this flexibility is conditional upon their autonomy to exercise it in whichever way is best for them. Autonomy is a key driver of human motivation, performance, and fulfillment; in the context of hybrid working, it is also directly correlated to the amount of flexibility a given employee has access to in their work arrangement. By turning the dial on autonomy up or down, employee flexibility increases or decreases, respectively.

For organizations looking to remain competitive in the hybrid future, enabling and empowering employee autonomy will be the single most important enabler of flexibility. By ditching policies for principles, investing in competence and relatedness, and giving employees the tools they need to do their job well regardless of location, leaders can create a culture of autonomy and flexibility to the benefit of the organization, teams, and individual employees.

As far as buzzwords go, “flexibility” is now rivaled in prominence only by the novel work model it is so often used to describe: hybrid work. Together, these words have taken over the way we speak about the future of work and constitute a whole series of new ways to think about the further integration of work and life.

But as typically happens with buzzwords, many different interpretations of flexibility are beginning to arise. For some, it means “the ability to connect and get work done from anywhere,” while to others it means “we’ll let you work from home a couple times a week.” As we’re beginning to find out, however, no one of these definitions is exactly what employees mean when they say they want flexibility. What it seems they really want is autonomy. Within the context of hybrid work, this means having the ability to be the primary decision-maker of where and when they do their work.

For leaders to facilitate flexibility and succeed in hybrid work, enabling employee autonomy will be paramount.

Employees Want Flexibility by Way of Autonomy

In our new hybrid working study, we asked over 5,000 knowledge workers around the world what they wanted from the future of their work arrangement. 59% of respondents reported that “flexibility” is more important to them than salary or other benefits, and 77% said they would prefer to work for a company that gives them the flexibility to work from anywhere rather than fancy corporate headquarters.

However, with 61% of employees reporting that they would prefer if management allowed team members to come into the office when they need to and work from home when they need to, our data also shows that the flexibility they want is conditional upon their ability to exercise it in a way that best fits them. In other words, it’s conditional upon autonomy.

“Mandates feel like a violation of autonomy, which is one of the most important intrinsic drivers of threat and reward in the brain.” When David Rock and Christy Pruitt-Haynes wrote this in a recent HBR article, they framed it in the context of employer Covid-19 vaccine mandates. But in the context of return-to-the-office mandates, our data shows that employees react with a similar — in fact, even stronger — degree of aversion: 59% of workers say they would not work for a company that required them to come into a physical office five days per week.

This aversion has already been evidenced in some companies attempting to force employees back into the office. Apple, for example, told employees that they were expected back into the office at least three days a week, a move which reportedly led to multiple resignations. Feeling “not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,” employees responded with an open letter to management, laying out their vision for the future of work at the company and requesting that “remote and location-flexible work decisions … be as autonomous for a team to decide as are hiring decisions” (emphasis added).

Together, this data paints a picture of the future of work that is based on flexibility by way of autonomy. It also suggests that hybrid working strategies which approach the issue of flexibility by implementing granular policies on where and when to work are likely to be suboptimal or flat out rejected by the majority of workers.

Why Give Employees Autonomy?

Other than because they simply want it, there are good reasons to give employees autonomy.

In 1985, two American psychologists, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, developed a theory that challenged the prevailing notion of reward as the main driver of motivation in humans. Instead, their self-determination theory asserted that intrinsic human motivation — that is, one’s autonomous motivation for personal, psychological growth — is the foundational catalyst of human success and fulfillment.

According to the two researchers, self-determination is made up of three components: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They defined autonomy as “the desire to be the causal agent of one’s own life.” If we think of entrusting employees with greater autonomy as the encouragement of self-determination, we can expect a greater degree of satisfaction, fulfillment, and engagement at work because the outcomes are likely to be perceived as the result of their own inherent ability. Similarly, it will serve as an intrinsic motivator to perform better.

This is not to say that extrinsic motivators such as compensation and benefits are not necessary and impactful in some ways; surely, Ryan and Deci still wanted to get paid for their groundbreaking work. However, such “controlled” motivators do not get at the core psychological element that motivates humans to become engaged and do a good job. This is exactly why employees perceive the ability to work flexibly as more important than salary and other benefits.

In short, autonomy is an indispensable component of motivation and a key driver of performance and well-being.

The Relationship Between Autonomy and Flexibility

As has been said time and again, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to hybrid working. Indeed, the fact that each organization can determine what works best for them is perhaps one of its most attractive attributes.

One form of hybrid — working from home and the office, but with a mandated number of days per week in the office — is slowly becoming accepted as the most common version. Some of this may have to do with a high level of advocacy for this model by many large global organizations such as Adobe, Citigroup, and Google.

There are, however, many other ways to build a hybrid workforce. And perhaps the easiest way to distinguish these hybrid models from one another is not necessarily by where an employee is working or when, but by the amount of autonomy they are given to decide this on their own.

To help us understand how much autonomy must be present to obtain a desired level of employee flexibility, we’ve created the hierarchy below. This hierarchy examines the most common work arrangements in the world today against the degree of autonomy and flexibility they facilitate.

Low autonomy, low flexibility: I am mandated to be in the office full time.

Low autonomy, medium flexibility: I work from both the home and the office, but my organization tells me which days to be in which place (e.g. the marketing department is required in the office on Monday and Wednesday, but must work remotely Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday).

Medium autonomy, medium flexibility: I can work from multiple locations, but with a minimum number of days required in office each week.

Medium autonomy, high flexibility: I am mandated to work remotely full time but can choose where I want to work.

High autonomy, high flexibility: I can work wherever, whenever, with full access to my organization’s office space.

Employees that are granted high autonomy by their organization by definition have greater access to flexibility because of the lack of geographic restrictions imposed on their work. Note that this does not mean that all high-autonomy employees will choose to exercise that flexibility by working in different locations, but simply that they could if they wanted to. The same cannot be said for employees granted a low degree of autonomy by their organization.

Since the remote work transition of the pandemic, a “medium autonomy, medium flexibility” arrangement has gained the most traction within organizations. This also comes as no surprise, as it is likely to be seen as a fair compromise between absolute employee autonomy and full-time office mandates. But as the data is showing, employees want flexibility by way of autonomy and are willing to seek employment elsewhere if they’re not given it. As such, maximizing employee autonomy is becoming less of a workplace benefit and more a necessary element to remaining competitive and relevant as an organization.

Three Steps to Enabling Autonomy in Hybrid Work

So, how can business leaders and team managers give employees the necessary autonomy to be as flexible as they need?

1. Establish principles, not policies

As stated, hybrid strategies containing policy-driven mandates on where and when to work are likely to be rejected by employees based on their inherent restriction to autonomy. Of course, since our research shows that 86% of employees think that careful work guidelines are needed for an equitable hybrid workplace, organizations still need to create a common understanding for how to approach hybrid working. For this, we recommend establishing principles instead of policies.

In a shift from policies to principles, “minimum three days in the office per week” may become “there is inherent value in both the physical office and remote locations — we strongly encourage employees to consider which locations best enable them to most effectively carry out certain tasks.” This sets a guideline for best practices without stepping on the toes of any employees for whom a minimum number of days in-office policy may be seen as restrictive or outright impossible for them to fit into the balance of their life. If communicated correctly, principles can be just as effective as policies, while creating room to explore new ways of working.

2. Invest in competence and relatedness

Self-determination, as stated above, is made up of three parts: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These three components are highly intertwined and must all be present for humans to be motivated and fulfilled to the highest degree. So, to get the full benefit of autonomy, both competence and relatedness should also receive due attention and investment.

Competence refers to an individual’s ability to complete their tasks through a mastery of relevant skills. As such, organizations that invest in skills development — not as an extrinsic reward but as an enabler of autonomy — will improve their employees’ ability to work autonomously. For managers, this means continuing to invest in your employees’ skills and competencies so that they will be empowered and enabled to own the results of their work and thrive in a hybrid environment that requires a high level of autonomy.

Relatedness, on the other hand, refers to our sense of belonging and social cohesiveness with others. In hybrid work, this is being put to the test. Our research shows that though employees overwhelmingly agree that hybrid is the way forward, many still have concerns related to communication and diminished social ties. Furthermore, 52% say that they would prefer to work from home but are concerned their career would suffer long-term. If left to linger, these issues can cause a setback in employee autonomy by eroding ties between employees and the common purpose that they all share. To reignite that sense of togetherness, leaders need to focus on building a virtual-first (but not virtual-only) organizational culture where employees have a clear line of sight to their role within the organization regardless of their physical location.

3. Give employees the tools they need to work autonomously from anywhere

The tools we needed in industrial times were what brought us to a physical place of work; innovations like the coal-powered furnace or the printing press were massive, stationary tools operated in a mill or factory setting. And as knowledge work rose in prominence, this location-centric way of working was inherited, along with other institutions like the nine-to-five workday.

But technology has now enabled a further decoupling of work from location and time, a phenomenon forced to center stage by the mass cultural experiment of the pandemic. A specific location is simply no longer a prerequisite to working effectively or building a company culture: what’s more important is getting the right tools and technologies and using them effectively.

This is also the way employees see it. We found that while 71% of the global workforce now sees the physical office space simply as a social amenity rather than a mandatory way of working, 85% feel that being confident in their technology allows them to excel at work.

The hardware that the modern knowledge worker needs is practically the antithesis of what workers used in industrial times; rather than enormous and static, it must now be flexible, wireless, and dynamic. They now need laptops to serve as the powerhouse of their work operations, and possibly a desktop computer in the location that serves as their most common workspace. On top of this, wireless peripherals — headset, video camera, keyboard, mouse, etc. — that can be transferred between their different work environments will help to make sure they can remain connected without becoming too anchored to any one location.

As leaders continue to rethink their real estate needs and hybrid work strategies, it is imperative that they enable employees with the right tools and technologies to be effective, autonomous, and connected from anywhere.

At the end of the day, it’s up to each organization to determine which approach makes the most sense in the context of their culture, industry, and overall purpose. But for those organizations whose employees have expressed a desire for increased flexibility, enabling autonomy will be more crucial than dictating a required number of days in office. Organizations that give employees the autonomy to choose their ideal way of working and support them with the right principles, training, and tools will result in a more flexible, more motivated, and higher performing workforce.

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