Ways of working are in a constant state of flux, and the upheaval of the pandemic has only accelerated the pace and concentration of change. In today’s business landscape, how can organisations not just keep up, but stay ahead of the curve and future-proof themselves? The answer is simple: data. As a Transformation Director and business advisor with over 20 years of experience in large scale back office transformation, Michael Hyltoft is an expert in using data and AI to drive and execute change. He shares his unique insights and advice in using data to add value in this five-part series.
Autonomy in the workplace refers to the degree of control that employees have over their work and involves giving them the freedom to make decisions, solve problems and generally take ownership of their work. They are able to determine their own schedules, choose projects and work in ways that best suit their own specific strengths and preferences, for example – without being closely monitored or micromanaged.
Giving employees autonomy is an important modern management practice, one which has benefits for workers and organisations. By empowering employees, companies can tap into their full potential and leverage their skills, knowledge and creativity. This can result in improved motivation, engagement and decision-making, which can in turn drive higher productivity and efficiency. Additionally, autonomy in the workplace can reduce turnover and enhance competitiveness, helping companies attract and retain top talent (important in the current marketplace) and improve their bottom line.
This is definitely something you can measure utilising several traditional methods – and we’re going to explore many of them in conjunction with the five key benefits of autonomous behaviour below.
When employees have control over their work, they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for their tasks and projects, which can increase their motivation to do their best work, as they’re more invested in the outcome of their efforts. Moreover, autonomy allows employees to take initiative and make decisions that they believe are best for their work, such as tailoring their tasks and projects to their individual strengths and interests. This can increase their sense of self-esteem and job satisfaction, and boost their engagement. And when employees are engaged in their work, they’re more likely to be productive and driven to contribute to the success of the company.
One way to evaluate whether employees have autonomy over their work/time is to measure how often their managers co-attend their meetings. If there is a high level of co-attendance, it’s likely a sign of micromanagement by the manager. The “right level” of co-attendance would need to be defined specifically for your organisation but, generally speaking, a low level of co-attendance indicates more autonomy.
Employees who are empowered to make decisions using their own skills, knowledge and judgement can act quickly and respond to changes in their work environment in a timely manner (without having to seek approval from others), leading to improved efficiency and productivity. Due to this enhanced responsibility, they are also more accountable, which can lead to a sense of pride in and a greater commitment to their job, as well as a willingness to take on additional responsibilities further down the line.
An employee survey, in which you ask your employees whether decision-making is something they feel able to do in their roles, is a useful tool here. Additionally, take a look at the amount of time your employees spend (meetings, messages, calls, and emails, etc.) with their direct reports (managers, functional leaders, etc.). It is highly likely you will find a strong correlation between this data and the self-reported survey results. This information can then be used to find the optimal level for your organisation. Be sure to measure again to see if the initiatives you initiate lead to the desired outcomes.
Autonomy often leads to a positive work environment that fosters creativity and innovation, as employees are encouraged to think outside the box and take risks. Given licence to work to their own best advantage and explore new ideas, employees can generate new and improved products, services and processes. Companies also often see improved collaboration and teamwork, as employees share their ideas and perspectives with others, leading to a more diverse range of ideas and solutions.
To measure this particular strain of autonomous behaviour, look at the amount of time that people with different skill sets within your organisation communicate with colleagues outside their direct domain of knowledge. This indicates a cross-fertilisation of knowledge and skills. You can also expand this data-gathering to include how much time is spent obtaining knowledge and skills from external parties. It can also be beneficial to track the keywords that are used in your organisation (meeting invites and emails), and how these change over time.
As mentioned above, greater control – e.g. the ability to tailor their tasks to their strengths – leads to greater job satisfaction. It can also lead to improved work-life balance, as employees can manage their time and workloads in ways that work for them, which helps to reduce stress and burnout and can improve overall employee wellbeing. And happier employees are, understandably, more likely to stay with the company for a longer period, reducing turnover and the associated costs and disruption to the company.
It is therefore important to measure how long employees stay in a company, but this can be impacted by wider economical changes (and it’s a fairly reactive approach to take). A more proactive data-gathering measure could be the use of an employee survey exploring job satisfaction and work habits. You can then correlate data like the span of their working weeks with their job satisfaction score. As you can see from the below graph, many companies find that there is a “sweet spot” between these two measurements. That said, different departments (and different levels of management) may see large differences in the location of the sweet spot. The example below shows the data from a single company and is grouped by working week span, and then average employee satisfaction for each group.
Autonomous employees can apply their skills and knowledge in ways that are most effective for them, which improves performance, motivation and engagement. And your employees are able to see the direct impact of their work on the company's goals and success, giving them a greater sense of purpose and commitment and improving their overall productivity and performance. Performance reviews, with clear objectives and KPIs, are a great starting point to start tracking this data set.
If you want to take the temperature of how autonomous your workforce is overall, I’d suggest finding out who sets up the most meetings and generates the most emails. Taking initiative like that is a good way of assessing autonomy. As can be seen from the below example, 15% of the population in this organisation generated close to 50% of the workload, and close to 50% of the organisation “received” 80% of their workload.
If you want to harness the full potential of your workforce and enjoy the benefits of autonomy in your workplace, it’s crucial to measure its impact regularly – and make sure you have easy ways to do so. By doing this, you can ensure that your initiatives are delivering the results you want and creating a workplace culture that is motivating, engaging and supportive of innovation and creativity. So don't wait. Start gathering the data today, and you’ll be that much closer to creating a more productive and dynamic organisation.
In the next instalment of the ‘Driving change with data’ series, we’ll be taking a look at collaborating in the workplace.