Autonomy in the workplace is hard to implement and easy to abuse. It requires managers and employees to trust each other and communicate on projects, which can be challenging in their own rights. Too often, a communication breakdown leads to micromanaging or missed deadlines.
By tapping into information sharing channels and mutual trust, it’s possible to increase team autonomy in the workplace. Here are a few examples of companies channeling information well and how employees become more autonomous because of it.
Autonomy Requires Strong Support and Communication Systems
Autonomy means employees have the space to make their own decisions, and employers provide the right tools and guidelines for employees to succeed. However, the idea of autonomy is often confused when it’s put into practice.
Many employees have picturesque ideas of autonomy in which they have complete freedom in their work, while managers worry that autonomy means employees will slack off all day. Neither of these is accurate.
Consultant Tracy Maylett provides clear guidelines to what autonomy is not, so employers and employees can banish these misconceptions when implementing autonomous policies:
Autonomy does not mean working in isolation, without supervision or collaborators.
Autonomy doesn’t mean doing whatever you like whenever. Rather, employers create boundaries for autonomy that employees can work it.
Autonomy does not mean working without a net. Employers provide guidelines for success and offer advice along the way.
By creating clear guidelines for autonomy and understanding what is expected, both employees and managers can create a collaborative buy independent workplace.
Case Study: Spotify
One company that has been successful in creating an autonomous work environment is the music streaming service Spotify.
Spotify has more than 2,000 employees who are grouped into self-organizing agile teams called squads.
“Each squad is accountable for a discrete aspect of the product, which it owns cradle to grave,” Eric Garton and Michael Mankins write. “Squads have the authority to decide what to build, how to build it, and with whom to work to make the product interoperable.”
Through a clear feedback channel and ownership of a particular product, teams remain accountable for their creations yet autonomous in how they create them. There are guidelines and coaches, but not micromanagers telling squads how to create something.
Communication Increases Trust
In order to make your team more autonomous, you need to establish communication and trust. Without communication, you’re leaving your employees without a safety net while your employees are working in isolation — two of the challenges Maylett cautioned against earlier.
“Engaged employees report their manager returns their calls or messages within 24 hours,” James Harter and Amy Adkins write at the Harvard Business Review. “These ongoing transactions explain why engaged workers are also more likely to report their manager knows what projects or tasks they are working on.”
It’s possible to let your employees be autonomous while still staying engaged in their work. Furthermore, you increase the chances your employees will come to you for a problem and share any concerns they have.
Case Study: STRV
David Semerad, co-founder of STRV, used to run weekly meetings with his entire staff. This was easy when his company was 50 people in one office, but became impractical when it expanded to 150 employees across five offices in two countries.
“My employees don’t want to wait for a company-wide meeting to get the latest updates on the projects we’ve landed or the new U.S. startups we’re working with,” Semerad writes. “They want the information immediately — in nicely packaged, digestible bites. And I don’t blame them.”
Communication breakdowns made employees feel out of touch with the company and like the founders didn’t know what each team was working on.
To increase communication, Semerad started posting client features around the break room and in bathroom stalls (he even took a survey to ensure this was the best possible placement). He also plans to install closed-circuit TV monitors to broadcast text-based news and company events. This way, teams are recognized for their work while important information is quickly shared across the organization.
Trust and Autonomy are Intertwined
Along with communication, trust is another key element when creating a culture of autonomy.
The team at BroadVision says trust and autonomy aren’t things employees can demand of their teams, but things that must be earned and shared across the company. All parties involved need to trust each other before they can effectively communicate and operate on their own:
Management should trust employees with increased responsibility.
Employees should trust their managers to have their best interests at heart.
Customers, partners and investors should trust the company (including its people and products) to perform as expected.
In this way, employees can’t demand managers trust them without a proven track record, and managers can’t expect employees to trust them if they haven’t helped them in the past.
Case Study: Credit Karma
Ken Lin, founder of Credit Karma, has made employee communication a priority since the early days of the company. These days, Lin has to rents a hotel conference room to talk to and share big news with the entire staff.
“At these all-hands meetings we present the board report in its full glory, every line item, growth chart and product plan,” Lin writes. “In a company that shares information openly and often, we can empower our employees to go about their jobs with confidence and to know the real bigger picture we're all working toward.”
Employees trust the company to clearly convey information and make the best possible choices, while the company trusts employees with confidential information. This mutual trust and respect leads to shared information and better decision-making across all levels of the organization.
Managers Provide Resources and Building Blocks
One of the biggest steps that managers have to take in creating an autonomous team is understand the nature of their roles.
“If you are a new manager, you need to recognize that your job is now managing people, not tasks,” Joan Cheverie writes for Educause. “This is the point where you stop telling your staff how to do their job and, instead, set the strategic direction, deadlines, and benchmarks and then allow them to determine how to accomplish the job.”
Essentially, you are painting an ideal picture of what the end goal should look like (and why it needs to be achieved), and then giving your team the autonomy to determine the best way to achieve it.
However, communication isn’t enough. Torben Rick encourages employers to offer training and learning opportunities to help employees understand the information they receive. Think about the employees at Credit Karma: Without training people in how to understand company finances, a large part of the quarterly reports information would be lost on the audience.
You can’t expect your marketing and HR teams to automatically understand how to read financial documents, and this cross-training will help your employees better appreciate the information you share.
Case Study: Techno Creatives
The team at Techno Creatives has built information sharing into its company structure, which fosters a culture of autonomy.
“We believe that if our people have the right information, they can make the best decisions.” CTO Oskar Hagberg writes. “If our employees know our business goals and the project constraints, they can do whatever they want. Then they analyze what they’ve done and based on the results, do more of it. Or, if it wasn’t the right thing, they do less of it and try something else instead.”
Managers become information providers instead of task masters. Their job is to provide the right tools and create opportunities for employees to succeed.
Hiding Information Leads to Mistrust
Failing to provide your employees with information will cause them to form assumptions and possibly jump to rash conclusions as they try to connect the dots.
According to Geckoboard, more than 90 percent of employees would rather hear bad news than be kept in the dark. When rumors of bad news circulate, employees are likely to assume the worst and sever trust ties with management.
Even if the news isn’t bad, employees become skeptical of management when information is withheld. When employees were asked why management would withhold information, the top reasons included:
Information is power, so managers keep it secret.
It’s too time-consuming to share information with employees.
They would have to pay employees more if they knew how the organization was doing.
They think employees won’t understand the information.
Without complete information, your employees will assume the worst. They will take the building blocks of information they do have and conclude that you’re hiding something important.
David Krantz, CEO of YP, agrees. “Many companies have a culture of looking for the positives and avoiding calling out and discussing the negatives,” he writes. “Great companies focus on what is not going well so they can dig in and get better. This approach allows employees to feel they have a say in their company’s culture and their ideas are valued.”
Bad News Can Be an Engagement Opportunity
One of the best ways to keep employees engaged is to take communication a step further and turn it into action.
Paula Clapon at Hppy writes that involving employees in decision making creates a greater consensus that the company is making the best choices and encourages them to make the ideal solution a reality. Instead of following a decree from management, your team feels like they’re coming up with plans for change.
Remember, autonomy is giving employees the opportunity to make decisions throughout their day. By involving them in company decisions, you’re empowering them to react to the news and to take their own steps to stabilize the organization.
It’s Better to Over-Communicate
If you ever feel as if you’re repeating a message too often or going above and beyond to make sure your employees receive the information, remember how David Semerad found the best way to communicate with employees was taping news to bathroom stall doors. It’s better to repeat a message so employees fully understand and digest the information.
Patrick Lencioni writes that employees won’t believe what they have been told unless they hear it seven times. While employers might think they’re being condescending by repeating themselves that many times, they’re actually enforcing the message.
It’s not that employees didn’t hear the first time, either. They are looking for contradictions in the information or reinforcement that it’s true. By having different leaders share the same message or apply the same message to different situations, managers can reinforce the information without sounding like broken records.
“Transparency of information and increased autonomy are intertwined,” Mike Volpe writes. “Autonomy only works if everyone has enough information to make good decisions and find other people working on similar things so they can collaborate.”
By communicating the right information to your employees, you can encourage autonomy and create a culture of trust. Your employees will trust that you are a resource for help when they need it, and you can trust your employees to make the best possible decision for every scenario.