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9 Ways to Encourage Worker Autonomy

Is worker autonomy at the top of your company goals list? Encouraging employee autonomy is more than just ditching micromanagement. Implementing a variety of strategies can help your employees work more independently to benefit themselves and your business.

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What is worker autonomy?

Employee autonomy refers to giving your workers freedom to take control of their work. It can include different aspects of the job and the extent of worker autonomy can also vary. Examples of autonomy include letting employees choose their hours, giving them decision-making power, allowing them to create processes for their duties and offering flexibility in work deadlines. While managers have more autonomy than individual employees, most employees don’t have the same control over how they do their jobs.

Autonomy doesn’t mean employees work without rules. You still need processes in place and not everything can be left to employees to decide. You might have certain situations that require approval from the boss, such as going over budget on a project or extending an already agreed-upon deadline.

It also doesn’t mean that you set your employees loose without any guidance. They’re not expected to work completely on their own or without company support. You can still have team settings and employees still get the safety net of support from their colleagues and managers. It simply gives employees more freedom in how they get their work done within the constraints you’ve set.

Benefits of employee autonomy

Why should you bother focusing on worker autonomy? Here are some benefits for you and your employees:

  • Increased job satisfaction: Employees feel happier when they have control and aren’t constantly told to follow strict rules.
  • Higher motivation: Having the opportunity to make decisions and try things can be a big employee motivator. Motivated employees are more productive and innovative, which benefits your company.
  • Developing leadership skills: When employees can take charge of their work duties, they learn to become leaders.
  • Increased productivity: Not only do employees feel empowered to get more done, they don’t have to cut through lots of red tape or wait for endless approvals to move forward with projects. This can speed up processes and increase productivity.
  • Improved work/life balance: When employees can control how they work, they’re better able to balance work and life. This can improve morale and productivity.
  • Lower employee turnover: Employees who value autonomy will stay with your company when you give them the freedom to work on their terms. They won’t want to risk losing that autonomy by working for a different company.
  • More time: When you spend less time micromanaging, you have more time to focus on other income-generating tasks for your business. Trusting your employees to work independently can make your job less stressful.

1. Build the right culture

Your company culture sets the tone for how your employees feel and behave at work. Building a culture of trust, open communication and autonomy signals to your employees that they can take the risk to act on their own. Evaluate the current culture to identify where you need to make improvements. For example, if you’re not transparent in communications with your employees, implement strategies to improve interactions. Altering company culture can take a long time, so be consistent and continue working toward the changes you want.

2. Make the right hires

When you hire employees, look for people who want worker autonomy. Some people prefer highly structured work environments where the rules are clear and processes are set in stone. They might have difficulty straying from that structure to work autonomously. Look for candidates who feel comfortable making decisions, trying new things and taking risks in the workplace. Ask interview questions about making decisions, following rules and working as a team. Let candidates share real-life examples from past jobs that can help you determine how comfortable they are working independently and making decisions.

3. Leave room for mistakes

Mistakes happen in every company, no matter how strict you are with your procedures. If you value autonomy, you have to allow for errors. Instead of punishing, blaming or ridiculing employees for making mistakes, give them the chance to take ownership over the outcome and fix the situation. Show that you value risk-taking even if it didn’t turn out perfect.

4. Establish a clear vision and goals

Having a clear company vision and communicating it to your team gives them something to rally around. Going into more depth with specific goals for projects or teams gives them more clarity about what you expect. These goals make it easier for employees to work independently with the confidence they’re making decisions that align with what the company wants.

5. Provide support

An autonomous worker still needs support from their manager and the company. Providing tools that let them work independently helps them do this. This might include software that makes the job easier or training on a specific topic that will enable them to do their work better. You might also need to mentor and support your employees when they require help. The key is balancing that support to avoid interfering with their processes or taking control of the situation.

6. Encourage a growth mindset

A growth mindset refers to the idea that you might not have the skills now, but you can learn them. You can continue growing your skill set and intelligence. That’s in contrast to a fixed mindset, which is a limiting belief that you’re stuck with the skills and intelligence you already have. When you encourage a growth mindset, you teach your employees to continue developing and improving. They build confidence in their abilities to grow, and the skills they acquire help them do more activities on their own.

7. Give employees more control

If you say you want worker autonomy, but you micromanage your employees and have very rigid procedures, you’re contradicting yourself. Start with general things like offering flexible scheduling or allowing employees to work from home if it’s possible for your business model. When giving workers more control, you also need to set boundaries. For example, you might be flexible with your hours, but you can’t have an employee working late into the night if most of your business transactions take place during the normal workday.

8. Recognize and reward autonomy

Employee recognition helps your workers understand what you want. It also encourages employees to continue doing those things. Plus, recognition feels good and makes your staff want to stay with your company. You might reward autonomy by giving an employee greater responsibilities or allowing them more freedom once they prove they can make smart decisions for the company. Giving individual feedback can also help employees develop autonomy.

9. Individualize autonomy

Not all employees are ready for the same level of autonomy. Employees who are a little hesitant to take ownership over projects or work duties might need more support or time to embrace the freedom fully. One-on-one meetings allow you to gauge each employee’s feelings about working autonomously. These sessions can help you find ways to nudge hesitant employees toward more autonomy. You can also use them to find ways for your most autonomous workers to take on more responsibility.

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