Where is Employee Autonomy Heading, and Are You Coming?

Increased autonomy in planning our workdays promises plenty of benefits for employers and employees alike. So why are some companies moving away from it or avoiding it altogether? Here’s how you can drive work/life integration in the workplace.

Man working from top of mountain

“I missed my daughter’s piano recital last night… too much work.”

I was dismayed to overhear those words while queuing up to board a plane recently. As every parent knows, missing a child’s after-school event is one of the worst feelings in the world.

Without knowing much else about this individual case, I nevertheless wonder if the situation could have been avoided if the company involved gave its workers more autonomy by practicing what we call “work/life integration.”

As technology advances and business becomes more on-demand, work is no longer a 9-to-5 job that’s done exclusively from an office. Nor is it a single linear activity, but rather a series of shorter sprints scattered throughout the day. With work/life integration, employees enjoy the autonomy to do their jobs when, where and how they need to – just as long as they do it well and on time.

The beauty of work/life integration is that it recognizes what’s most important to us in life, and that’s most often our families. When work/life integration isn’t practiced, or fails, we tend to miss out on important things, as was likely the case for the young professional boarding the plane to Munich.

And that’s a shame.

But, Unfortunately, It’s a Reality…

If anything, we seem to be backsliding into the old command-and-control management days, where work was best summed up as “be at your desk from 9 to 5.” We all remember the headlines Yahoo made in 2013 when it pulled the plug on telecommuting, only to have several high-profile companies follow suit. A study found that half of all managers opposed “working from home,” while another 35 percent merely “tolerated” the concept.

That’s troubling, because employees and organizations are missing out on autonomy’s many benefits.

  • It’s good for productivity. The biggest gripe about autonomy is that it supposedly enables employees to slack off. But research suggests otherwise. In a survey, 37 percent of employees reported being more productive at home, while 44 percent said they encountered fewer distractions there. [1]
  • It’s good for the bottom line. More time on the job means greater productivity. A NASDAQ-listed firm with 16,000 employees experienced a 13 percent increase in performance from home-working employees, due to fewer breaks and sick days and less noise. Plus job-attrition rates fell by 50 percent. [2] And with traffic a headache in most cities, eliminating the daily commute means more work time.
  • It’s great for morale. The opportunity to control our own workdays is a sign of trust. In a survey, home workers reported substantially higher work satisfaction and psychological attitude scores. Plus, autonomy gives us valuable time to engage in activities that matter most to us – the ones make us a great parent, child, friend, neighbor or coworker.

We Have the Technology… But Do We Have the Will?

In fact there’s no reason why virtually all organizations shouldn’t be embracing autonomy. After all, the technology is there. Fast internet connections, cloud-based software, Wi-Fi everywhere and ultra-capable tablets and smartphones make it easy for us to work from anywhere – whether that’s the kitchen table, the car or the local Starbucks.

As responsible and engaged employees, we must take the initiative and make autonomy a reality by overcoming organizational resistance to it. That starts by putting an end to the old-school notion that we can achieve “work/life balance.” We’ve tried and we can’t – because one always tends to shortchange the other, leading us to feel guilty that we’re not spending enough time doing one or the other.

We also need to be clear that autonomy isn’t just about working from anywhere, which is just a small part of it. Rather, autonomy is about controlling our workday and structuring our schedules to accommodate our work and personal obligations: That means coming in early, perhaps, to free up time for a school event later, in this case.

I can’t wait until all organizations embrace work/life integration, and I know I won’t be alone. Because no one should have to miss their child’s after-school activity because they couldn’t get away from work for a couple hours.