What if we had more autonomy at work?

N Gautam
4 min readMay 30, 2021
Photo by Rene Vincit on Unsplash

Suppose you Google “autonomy at work”, it would likely pull up the following from www.rallybright.com:Autonomy means allowing employees to shape their work environment so they can perform to the best of their ability. Autonomy is not working in isolation, doing what you want whenever you want, or lack of guidance. An autonomous workplace is based on trust, respect, dependability and integrity”. There are several other related definitions. There are also explicit directions of how as a leader one could create opportunities for employees to experience autonomy at work. Hence, if you are in a leadership role, it would be worthwhile going through the websites and improve your organization.

If you have read Dan Pink’s book “Drive”, he makes a strong case for autonomy at work. He says that giving autonomy increases productivity and creativity. Those of us that are lucky to have gotten tenure at a university obtain academic freedom which contributed to workplace autonomy. Likewise, those of us that are fortunate to be able to spend at least part of our day working on our pet projects are in workplaces that offer some autonomy. But there are many that do not have the luxury for autonomy at our workplaces. However, most workplaces strive for trust, respect, dependability and integrity, the attributes described in the previous paragraph. In essence, most organizations mean to provide autonomy.

Most organizations, as the definition of autonomy suggests, intend to provide an environment so that employees can perform to the best of their ability. In fact, many also do provide the environment. They also clearly define their mission and vision, i.e. their why. However, instead of stopping here and letting the employees do their best work aligning with the vision and mission (with guidance and direction, of course), many organizations also throw in metrics. Oftentimes, the metrics are proxies for important vision and mission attributes that can be easily measured, and typically used for promotions, awards, and raises. The downside is oftentimes the metrics do not lead to positive effects in the long-term.

Simon Sinek does a wonderful job explaining in his book “The Infinite Game” about the role of metrics. In his interview with inc.com, Simon Sinek says, “traditional metrics are a measure of speed and distance. How fast we are growing and how far we have gone”. He goes on to clarify that things like trust, cooperation, and teamwork should also be considered in people’s compensation. This is understandably difficult to do but with some effort such as getting feedback from everyone impacted (viz. 360-degree feedback) it may be possible. At the university this is typically done through course feedback from students. At companies, feedback is obtained from individuals that interact from other teams, peers, and subordinates.

Coming back to autonomy, as an employee, for us there are two parts in the definition (refer to the first paragraph): (1) shaping our work environment; (2) perform to the best of our ability. If as an employee we were allowed to shape our work environment, what would we want? Many things come to mind such as flexible work hours and flexible locations, conducive setting, excellent tools, no boring meetings, etc. Let us for a moment assume that our organizations can provide those to some extent so that we have “more” autonomy at work that we did before. What would we do then? Here are some thoughts on what we can do to perform better in our abilities.

Making Significant Contributions

Even if our workplace does not have a vision statement that inspires and fulfills us, we can find something that does and make significant contributions towards that. In particular, if we have been overly focussed on the “metrics” we are evaluated on, this may be a good time to look at what is important and significant in the long term or for the greater good of the society, planet, or whatever brings meaning to us. Then we can work on that.

Improving Workplace Interactions

To start with, we could walk around to check on people. We can find out how things are going for them, and if there are things we could help with, that would be an added bonus (side benefit: walking around improves our health by leaps and bounds). Of course, this can also be done through electronic communications (viz. text messages, email, or Zoom) but face-to-face and one-on-one is more ideal as the recipient would be more comfortable to share.

Thinking Big and Creating

Once we have a good idea of what is significant and what are the needs, it would be immensely helpful to create ideas. That may mean we would be pushed a bit outside our comfort zones. This is where thinking big and creating comes in because we need to go well beyond our abilities and grow. We could pick up new skills, form a team of not all like-minded people, and then execute. While difficult in the short term, their benefits are in the long-term.