Why autonomy is so important at work

Autonomy is a topic I’ve touched on a few times on this blog in the last few years, both in terms of its impact on motivating participants in crowdsourcing ventures, but also in the workplace.

For instance, in 2014 a study published by the University of Pennsylvania.  The study found that when highly educated people are given autonomy over how and when and where they work, they produce much more than when they are micro-managed.

These findings were then reflected in a second study, this time by researchers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University.  The research found that when you give employees the opportunity to customize their own jobs, known as idiosyncratic deals, a number of positive outcomes emerged, including being less stressed, more motivated, and more engaged in their work.

It should perhaps come as little surprise therefore, that a third study found that autonomy was conducive to greater initiative from employees.  What’s more, they also grew in confidence, were more intrinsically motivated and had higher engagement levels.

The importance of autonomy

If the benefits of autonomy are not clear by now, a 4th study, this time by researchers at the University of Birmingham, highlights the benefits in terms of both wellbeing and job satisfaction.

The study monitored 20,000 employees over two years and found that autonomy levels differed significantly across not only professions but also genders.  For instance, those in managerial roles revealed the highest levels of autonomy.

Within professions, the degree of autonomy also varied.  For instance, only 40% of people revealed they had freedom over their working hours, with many having no autonomy at all over their hours, especially in lower skilled work.

“Greater levels of control over work tasks and schedule have the potential to generate significant benefits for the employee, which was found to be evident in the levels of reported well-being,” the authors say. “The positive effects associated with informal flexibility and working at home, offer further support to the suggestion that schedule control is highly valued and important to employees “enjoying” work.”

Gender imbalance

What’s more, there were also distinct differences in the kind of autonomy enjoyed by men and women in the study.  For instance, it seemed to be more beneficial for women to enjoy autonomy and flexibility over hours and location of work so as to allow them to juggle family commitments that are still disproportionately the domain of women.

“The manner of work and control over work schedule was found to be more relevant to the well-being of female employees,” the authors say.  “Flexibility in work location, specifically homeworking, benefitted women with caring responsibilities allowing them to better manage paid work alongside the household.”

By contrast, men were found to be more impacted by job tasks, pace of work, and task order.

Interestingly, despite managers enjoying the benefits of greater autonomy themselves, and indeed aware of the benefits for their staff, they are often unwilling to give autonomy to their staff.  When quizzed, they revealed that this was in large part because they viewed their role as primarily one of ‘control and effort extraction.’

We’ve come a long way, but it seems we still have some way to go.


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