Autonomy in the workplace: How to strike the right balance
In "Managing better: Piercing the fog of today's uncertainty," our report produced in partnership with RedThread Research, we explored how people can effectively manage their remote teams. One of the most surprising findings from our research: employees’ level of autonomy is one of the few measures that increased during the pandemic.
While this is great, it’s important for managers not to confuse autonomy with indifference. It can be challenging to know how to balance autonomy and support, especially during these unprecedented times. But this is where HR can step in and provide the resources, tools, and education to help managers be as effective as possible while still supporting employee independence.
How to promote the right level of autonomy in the workplace
When we compared the 2019 and 2020 data, we saw a rise of five percentage points in employees who indicated that their manager provides them with the autonomy to do their work to a great extent. This isn't surprising, given that 76% of employees are no longer seeing their managers in person.
This is a positive development since research has found that employees with higher levels of autonomy tend to experience higher job satisfaction and well-being. However, this shouldn’t signal managers and HR teams to be hands-off about their employees’ work. On the contrary, it’s more critical than ever before to demonstrate support while everyone is remote.
Thankfully, our research also found that managers are more open to new information than ever before. This is the only other item – beyond autonomy – where we saw an improvement. This indicates that, even in this novel environment, managers are looking for new ways to support employees.
Below, we outline four strategies to help managers balance autonomy and support and explain what HR can do to enable them.
1. Create a psychologically safe work environment
Our data shows the most significant decline during the pandemic has been in creating a psychologically safe work environment. Some of this decline is likely due to uncertainty around job security – which managers may not be able to address.
But there are other factors, such as having a space for challenging conversations and feeling comfortable bringing one’s whole self to work, that managers and HR teams can address. This, in turn, can improve an employee’s sense of autonomy and feelings of being supported. Our research revealed that by creating safe spaces to talk about challenges and communicating regularly, managers and the organization could create greater psychological safety.
How HR can enable managers
- Identify the gaps. No two company cultures are the same. That’s why HR teams need to distribute surveys that can objectively identify employees' challenges related to the pandemic and social justice movements. While one organization may struggle with burnout, another may lack resources for BIPOC employees.
- Create programming to fill those gaps. Once challenges are identified, HR can take action by designing programs that align with these findings. For instance, if employees feel uncomfortable talking about mental health, creating private Slack channels or intimate groups where these conversations are welcomed may be a good first step.
- Provide relevant training. Managers play a huge role in creating a psychologically safe work environment. Knowing this, HR teams need to provide all company leaders with the resources to enable the right behaviors – whether that’s offering training that teaches them how to have more empathetic conversations or making them aware of all the company resources available to employees.
Managing better: Piercing the fog of today’s uncertaintyDownload the report
2. Focus on value-added tasks
With constantly shifting priorities, employees may be uncertain about how to spend their time or the value of their role. This can negatively impact their confidence in making decisions and make them feel unsupported by their organization. That’s why our research found that it’s essential to clarify what needs to get done and where people should focus, given the overall increase in stress and decline in connection.
How HR can enable managers
- Establish new priorities. Once your C-suite identifies new company goals, HR teams must communicate these changes to the entire organization. By doing so, they enable managers to help their direct reports reprioritize their workloads and adjust their individual goals.
- Create guidelines for communication channels. To reduce stress and help employees focus, HR should create new guidelines around communication channels. For instance, when should you email someone instead of messaging them? Are there “office hours” for Slack? Formalizing these guidelines can help managers establish healthy boundaries within their teams.
3. Provide performance transparency
Our data shows that clarity is more important than ever. Without transparency, especially around performance, employees won’t know how to approach their work and may feel like they can’t progress in their jobs. We found that the most effective managers provide their direct reports with transparency on past performance and future expectations, as well as an ongoing focus on growth.
How HR can enable managers
- Introduce performance tools. While managers are an essential part of the feedback process, so is providing employees with data on their performance. This is where HR teams can support their workforce by providing tools that give employees more performance feedback. For instance, we’ve seen some companies offer technology that can analyze email metadata or phone conversations and share employee feedback on their tone, responsiveness, and communication frequency.
- Give managers resources to have conversations about goals. We found through our research that many organizations are increasing the frequency with which they discuss goals. These involve deep and thoughtful discussions between managers and direct reports. Providing managers with guides or talking points can help maximize the effectiveness of these discussions.
- Encourage more frequent check-ins. The common thread between both performance evaluation and expectation transparency is the need to have regular check-ins. Nearly 80% of highly effective managers have check-ins with their employees on (at least) a weekly basis. Regular check-ins have been found to help employees reprioritize their work and have also been linked to higher individual performance. HR can help managers have more impactful 1-on-1 meetings by providing the right frameworks, resources, and tools.
4. Value employees
Building trust is a powerful way to increase both autonomy and support. Our research found that one of the ways the most effective managers build trust is by demonstrating that they value their employees.
Why is this so important? It shows employees that their contributions and hard work, especially during these challenging times, are still being noticed and appreciated. It also confirms that they’re on the right track regarding their work and motivates them to continue the behaviors their managers want to see from them.
How HR can enable managers
- Implement a recognition program. One of the most effective methods for valuing employees we’ve heard of over the years – and one that HR can enable – is implementing employee recognition programs. This is low-hanging fruit since, as recently as 2019, 12% of employees indicated that they’re never recognized for their work.
- Create opportunities for more casual recognition. Not all recognition activities have to be formal. Some direct reports enjoy having their performance highlighted to peers, while others prefer a much more subtle form of recognition. This is where a manager’s discretion comes into play. However, HR can help improve the likelihood that an employee will feel valued by putting into place the resources for managers to give that recognition.
Autonomy and support aren’t mutually exclusive. When offered in tandem, they can create a positive experience, culture, and work environment for your employees – even while remote. This article only scratches the surface regarding recommendations on managing your employees during the pandemic.