After a year and a half of living during the pandemic, freedom in the workplace has taken on new meaning. The need for business innovation brought about a change in responsibility and accountability for everyone. Autonomy took on different forms during these unprecedented past 16 months requiring us all to adapt and change.
Issues such as having employees manage their workload by setting their schedules, choosing how to do their work, exercising creativity in approaching job goals, and working from home were some results. Many employees voiced these issues in the past but were met by resistance by the employer. The fear was often that these accommodations would give the employee too much leeway and they would not meet expectations for public accountability. Nevertheless, the pandemic resulted in employees working from home for many businesses with managers and owners sacrificing control. Surprisingly, many did see significant employee commitment, better performance, improved productivity, and lower turnover. Places like Google, Dropbox, and similar big corporations whose reputation for innovation has been linked with less conventional work environments, were no longer alone implementing innovative practices.
Currently, many businesses are now facing some sort of new ”flexibility.” Flexibility has become the fastest-rising priority for all working generations, followed by work-life balance, benefits, and workplace culture (LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index research, professionals in the US surveyed between March 13 to 26, 2021). Millennials are no longer the only ones who have very high expectations for learning, development, transparency, and flexibility on the job—providing the freedom to manage one’s work and determining when and where they do that work is fundamental to the satisfaction of the current workforce.
It is human nature that people like to have choices and flexibility. In a very routine job, autonomy doesn’t have much impact on productivity. However, it can still increase satisfaction, which leads to other positive outcomes. Freedom: There’s a difference between having it and knowing what to do with it. A mind that feels free does better work, and giving employees the room to reach their objectives in the ways they see fit can be a solid leadership move — if done right. Being autonomous allows the freedom to produce one’s best work, such as encouraging ideas, changes in operations, new management techniques, and working on new projects to stay engaged. Our new, post-pandemic work habits are still being determined which is why flexibility is so valued.
When management makes decisions about organizing work, it is important for them to consider the effect on people’s autonomy. It can significantly impact how employees feel about their job and the business for whom they work. Approximately 70 percent of employees want to retain some degree of remote work. In general, people want to do what they do best, and for many who are working from home, even though they may be working longer hours, their happiness and productivity have gone up (The Economist, https://www.economist.com/printedition/2021-04-10).
It now becomes the responsibility of managers to let go somewhat and adjust the metrics they use to determine if work is getting done. The question is not whether a boss can see an employee sitting at a desk for eight hours, but whether the employee is producing the work they’re supposed to do to meet expectations.
Employees want the freedom to determine their days, hours and location, from where they work. They want to be in control of how they dress and make independent decisions. As long as they perform at work, they feel choices such as these should be decided upon by them.
What people are looking for now is flexibility. Working parents want to adjust the job clock themselves — establishing the start, stop and break times that work best for them. Others like the freedom to change cities while still keeping the same employer. We have to remember that productivity and an ideal workspace look different for everyone. It’s essential to listen to what an employee needs and feels more comfortable doing, rather than assuming someone will want to work one way or another. Flexibility means something different for everyone involved. We may need to adapt to these multiple definitions and many other arrangements co-existing at the same time. We may be entering the hybrid approach to working where specific days are designated for in-office meetings and collaboration and remote days for work involving individual focus to allow for structure, social interaction, autonomy, and flexibility. Employers need to balance employee needs with the needs of their business, image and culture, and health and safety impact.
Freedom increases offerings, options, and opportunities.
Three things we can learn from this newfound freedom in the workplace:
- Having employees work on their solutions to problems has shed light on processes that may have bogged their productivity. They have been able to contribute to new ways of working that are more effective and efficient. Be open (flexible) to suggestions.
- Allowing employees to participate in their performance goals enable employees to identify what they are doing well within the company and what it means to them so they can be more willing to meet the goal.
- Having employees feel valued requires their participation in being heard as to what is most important to them – their safety, compensation, and being appreciated for their work. By getting employee participation, employers can provide the most meaningful benefits to your team. Their participation increases their retention (or makes them want to come back and work for you.)
Reflect on the following for more freedom:
- What sort of freedoms will you need to keep or put in place for you to do your best work or for your business to perform in the next three months?
- Which current freedoms will you review? How will you determine their impact?
- Moving forward, how will you define flexibility in your work life? One person’s flexibility is not someone else’s.