Latest from the Lab: Getting Autonomy Right


Over the last four decades, the nature of work has changed dramatically. Tech innovations have spawned new industries and shifted manufacturing economies to knowledge and service economies. We’ve come to enjoy more options for how, when, and where to work, while also dealing with the challenges of our work becoming more complex, uncertain, and difficult to manage.

Because of these shifts, employees have become accustomed to – and demanded –  increased autonomy. That desire has only intensified with the pandemic. Research has shown that overwhelming stress is closely linked to a feeling of lack of choices. A recent study conducted by Harvard Business Review found that 59% of respondents value flexibility over salary, while 77% prefer companies that allow them to work from anywhere. What’s more, 61% would prefer to come into the office only when necessary. This study shows that employees want to use flexibility in a way that suits them best.

Knowing this, we might assume there’s an easy solution: Organizations simply need to grant more autonomy to their employees. After all, studies show that autonomy can increase productivity. But if not handled with care, attempts to grant autonomy can backfire.

Take the example of gender differences among remote workers. According to a LinkedIn survey, when given the option to work in the office or at home, women are 26% more likely than men to choose to work remotely. This difference is most likely because of the increasing need to balance work and childcare as a result of the pandemic.

On the surface, that balancing act appears to be a wonderful option; the increased autonomy allows employees to exert more control over their schedules and how they balance work and personal life. But another study by Qualtrics and theBoardlist, found that 34% of men with children were promoted while working remotely, compared to just 9% of women with children. In other words, working remotely appears to impact men and women differently, and in some cases may penalize women more than it does men.

This study points to the need to provide autonomy in a thoughtful way and to fully understand how an organization views it. If your boss says you have the freedom to work when and where you want, so long as the work gets done on time, at first you probably feel grateful for being granted this choice. After a bit more thought, you may think about how this may play out in reality, asking questions like: Are my team members being given the same opportunity? How will my decision impact my ability to collaborate? What will my boss think of me if I choose to work remotely?

As you wrestle with these questions and others, the answers may lead you to make a decision that isn’t actually best for you. That’s why organizations need to communicate more intentionally about the choices they present to their employees, and balance autonomy effectively with certainty. In other words, give people choices but not too many. Giving too much autonomy can create capacity issues, and it can cause a disconnect between the implementation and intention of choice.

When organizations do this successfully, employees are given real autonomy — autonomy that includes an understanding of the implications of their choices. That’s why experimenting with a variety of options is a crucial step in the power of choice. Through experimentation, managers can work with their teams to meet individual needs, while establishing shared road rules to ensure everyone is treated fairly.  A key element for this to work is to understand that we can’t expect experimentation to lead to the ideal solution immediately. Instead, we should expect the need to refine the approach as the options that work for everyone emerge overtime.

Finally, keep in mind that the best autonomy includes options that work for everyone,  and it will require an open-minded, team effort, to uncover the right solution.

Author: Ryan Curl, Ph.D

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