Forget Flexibility. Your Employees Want Autonomy.

To ensure that organizations can remain competitive in the future hybrid world, it is crucial to empower and enable employee autonomy. Leaders can foster a culture that is flexible and autonomous for the benefit of their employees, as well as the benefit of their teams and employees by embracing principles, investing in competence, relatedness, and giving them the tools and resources they need to do the job well, regardless of where they are located.
The future of work is now defined by flexibility. A new survey on hybrid working shows that employees want flexibility. However, this flexibility must be based on their ability to use it in the best way for them. Human motivation, performance and fulfillment are all influenced by autonomy. In hybrid working, this is directly related to how flexible an employee's work arrangement is. Employee flexibility can be increased or decreased by turning the autonomy dial up or down.

Flexibility is no longer a buzzword. It is being surpassed only by hybrid work, a new work model that is often described. These words, taken together, have taken over how we talk about the future work model and offer a new way to look at the integration of work with life.

As is the case with many buzzwords, flexibility can be interpreted in many different ways. Some people define flexibility as being able to work remotely and connect to the internet. Others see it as being able to work from home at least once a week. They really want autonomy. This is essential in hybrid work because it allows them to make the final decisions about where and when they work.

Leaders must encourage flexibility and success in hybrid work by allowing employees autonomy.

Employees want flexibility through autonomy

We surveyed over 5,000 knowledge workers from around the globe to find out what they want in the future of their work arrangements. 59% of respondents said flexibility is more important than other benefits and 77% stated that they prefer to work for companies that allow them to work from home rather than in fancy corporate headquarters.

With 61% of employees saying they would prefer that managers allowed team members to work from home and come to the office when needed, our data shows that their desire for flexibility is dependent on their ability to do so in the most effective way. It is dependent upon autonomy.

Mandates can feel like a violation to autonomy, which is one the most important intrinsic drivers for threat and reward in our brains. Christy Pruitt–Haynes and David Rock wrote this in an HBR article. They did so in the context of mandated employer Covid-19 vaccines. Our data shows that employees are more averse to mandates for return-to the office. 59% of workers said they wouldn't work for a company that required them five days a week to be in a physical office.

Some companies have tried to force employees back in the office because of this aversion. Apple, for instance, informed employees that they would be expected to return to the office at least three times per week. This move led to several resignations. Employees felt not only unheard but also actively ignored by management. They wrote an open letter to management laying out their vision and asking for remote and location-flexible work decisions to be made as independently as hiring decisions.

These data together paint a picture about the future of work, which is based on autonomy and flexibility. This data also shows that hybrid strategies, which attempt to address the issue of flexibility through implementing granular policies about where and when work should be rejected by most workers.

Why give employees autonomy?

Employees should have autonomy, not just because they want it.

Two American psychologists, Richard Ryan (USA) and Edward Deci (USA), developed a theory in 1985 that challenged the notion that reward is the primary driver of motivation. Their self-determination theory argued that intrinsic human motivation, which is one's own motivation for personal and psychological growth, is the main driver of human success.

The researchers found that self-determination is composed of three components: autonomy and competence. According to the researchers, autonomy is the desire to be the causal agent in one's own life. This encourages self-determination and can lead to greater satisfaction, fulfillment, engagement, and productivity at work. Employees with greater autonomy are more likely to perceive the results as their inherent ability. It will also serve as an intrinsic motivator for employees to perform better.

However, this does not mean that extrinsic motivations such as benefits and compensation are not important and effective in certain ways. Ryan and Deci wanted to be paid for their pioneering work. But, these controlled motivators don't get to the heart of what motivates people to be engaged and do a great job. Employees see flexibility as more important than pay and benefits.

Autonomy is a crucial component of motivation, and a key driver for performance and well-being.

The Relationship between Autonomy & Flexibility

Hybrid working is not a one-size fits all approach, as has been repeatedly stated. One of the most appealing aspects of hybrid working is its ability to adapt to each organization's needs.

A hybrid model that allows you to work from home but also works in the office with a set number of working days per week is gradually becoming the most popular. This may be due to the high level of advocacy by large global companies like Adobe, Citigroup, or Google for this model.

However, there are many ways to create a hybrid workforce. These hybrid models can be distinguished from each other by how much autonomy the employees have.

Below is a hierarchy that helps us to understand the amount of autonomy required for employees to be able to have a high level of flexibility. This hierarchy compares the most common work arrangements around the globe today with the level of autonomy and flexibility they allow.

Low autonomy, low flexibility: I am required to work in the office all day.

Low autonomy and medium flexibility: I can work from home or the office. However, my company tells me when to be there (e.g. The marketing department must be present in the office Monday through Wednesday but can work remotely on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Medium autonomy, moderate flexibility: I am able to work from multiple locations but only with a minimal number of days in the office each week.

High flexibility, moderate autonomy: I have been given the mandate to work remotely but I can choose where and when I work.

High autonomy and flexibility: I can work anywhere, anytime, with full access of my organization's office space.

High autonomy employees have more flexibility due to the absence of geographical restrictions. This does not necessarily mean that high-autonomy employees can choose to work in other locations. However, it does allow them to have greater flexibility. This is not true for employees who are granted low autonomy by their organizations.

A medium autonomy, moderate flexibility arrangement has been the most popular since the pandemic's remote work transition. It is also not surprising that this arrangement will be seen as a compromise between absolute employee autonomy, full-time office mandates, and it will likely be viewed as such. The data shows that employees desire autonomy and will seek work elsewhere if it is not offered. Maximizing employee autonomy is no longer a benefit for the workplace, but a necessity to keep an organization competitive and relevant.

Three steps to enable autonomy in hybrid work

How can managers and business leaders give their employees the freedom to be as flexible as possible?

1. Establish principles, not policies

Employees are more likely to reject hybrid strategies that have policy-driven mandates about where and when they should work. This is due to their restriction on autonomy. Our research has shown that 86% employees believe that careful work guidelines are necessary for an equitable hybrid workplace. However, organizations need to come up with a common approach to hybrid working. We recommend that you establish principles rather than policies.

A shift from policies to principle may mean that employees spend at least three days per week in the office. However, employees should not be forced to use remote offices. Principles can be as effective as policies if communicated properly and allow for new ways of working.

2. Invest in competence, and relatedness

As stated, self-determination is comprised of three components: autonomy, competence,, and relatedness. All three are interrelated and must be present in order for people to be motivated and fulfilled to their full potential. To reap the full benefits of autonomy, competence and relatedness must also be given due attention and invested in.

Competence is the ability of an individual to accomplish their tasks by mastering relevant skills. Organizations that invest in skills development, not as an intrinsic reward, but as an enabler to autonomy, will increase their employees' ability to work independently. Managers should continue to invest in their employees' skills and capabilities so they can take control of the results of work and thrive in an environment that demands autonomy.

On the other hand, relatedness refers to our senses of belonging and social cohesion with others. This is what hybrid work requires. Research shows that while employees agree that hybrid work is the best option, many have concerns about communication and social ties. 52% of respondents said they would prefer to work at home, but were concerned about their long-term career prospects. These issues can lead to employee autonomy being compromised and erode the ties that employees have with each other. Leaders need to create a virtual-first, but not virtual-only, organizational culture that allows employees to see their roles within the organization from any location.

3. Give your employees the tools to work independently from any location.

Industrial times brought us to the physical workplace. Innovations like the coal-powered furnace and the printing press were large, stationary tools that were used in factories or mills. This location-centric approach to working became more popular as knowledge work gained prominence.

Technology has enabled a further separation of work and location, which was made more prominent by the mass cultural experiment that is the pandemic. It is no longer necessary to work effectively or build a company culture in a specific place. What is more important is having the right tools and technologies, and how you use them.

This is how employees also see it. Our research revealed that 71% of global workers now view the physical office space as a social benefit and not a necessity, while 85% believe that technology helps them excel at work.

Modern knowledge workers need hardware that is smaller and more flexible than the old industrial-era equipment. Their workstations now require laptops and a desktop computer. Wireless peripherals such as a headset, video camera and keyboard are also essential. They can transfer their work environment to ensure they are connected but not too tied to one place.

Leaders must continue to think about their real estate requirements and hybrid work strategies. It is crucial that employees are equipped with the tools and technology they need to be productive, autonomous, and connected anywhere.

Each organization must decide which approach is most appropriate for their industry, culture, and overall purpose. For those employees who want more flexibility, it is important to give them the freedom to choose their own work schedule. Employees who are empowered to choose how they want to work and receive the training and tools necessary to succeed will be more productive and flexible.