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“Millionaires, authors or bums”… Was this Deloitte partner right to deride employee autonomy?

Employee autonomy is one of the things often touted as a bit of a magic bullet for things like engagement, wellbeing and productivity. But, according to one executive over at Deloitte, employee autonomy at work isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 

Does he have a point, or does autonomy have advantages he’s overlooking?

One of Deloitte’s senior leaders doesn’t believe in employee autonomy...

Alexander Curry, a Partner and UK leader at Monitor Deloitte, argues that autonomy isn’t something that employees should expect as a matter of course. He presents something of a strawman depiction of workplace autonomy via the apparent input of some of his younger employees.

According to Curry, these more junior staff members “...essentially expressed the view that what they did with their time was up to them, based on their interests and preferences.”

To this, he responded, “Now, if you want to do what you want, I suggest that you become millionaires, authors or bums. Failing that, I would like to emphasize the rules of the road for scheduling.”

Strong words for sure from Mr Curry.

...But we disagree!

For now, let’s put aside the issue of whether or not that conversation even happened in the first place, and address the flaws in Curry’s argument.

Firstly, and most egregiously, the conversation he depicts doesn’t give an accurate view of what employee autonomy actually is. If you were to take Curry’s description at face value, employee autonomy would seem to mean letting employees do literally whatever they want, whenever they want. This is compounded by his ‘millionaires, authors or bums’ comment.

To be clear, employee autonomy at work doesn’t mean being given the freedom to literally sit around and do nothing all day. Autonomy is about giving employees the freedom to approach their set tasks however works best for them.

What Curry ignores is that the required standard of productivity is still very much present in even the most autonomy-focused workplaces. If autonomous workers didn’t still feel obligated to perform their roles, then the uptake of remote work during the pandemic would never have been so successful. On top of that, Curry’s stance even seems to run counter to Deloitte’s own decision-making, as they have recently announced that their 20,000 UK staff will be able to decide when, where and how they work.

What puts employers off of autonomy?

But Curry is far from the only one to be alarmed by the idea of employee autonomy at work. To understand why that is, let’s take a look at some of the possible disadvantages of an autonomous workforce:

  • Autonomy requires a trusting relationship: Unfortunately, not every workplace is a bastion of trust and cooperation. When a boss has an adversarial relationship with their staff, the idea of them working out of sight can become much more stressful. In fact, it’s exactly this concern that can push less competent or experienced managers to micromanage their team.
  • Autonomy can put pressure on employees: It’s one thing to be given a task with clear expectations on how to go about it. It’s entirely another to be given an objective and a blank check on how you should achieve it. For those not used to autonomy, it can be quite intimidating.

    It’s well-known that many employees can struggle to understand their responsibilities, so with an autonomous workforce, it’s even more important to set basic expectations early on in the project cycle.
  • Some types of workplaces require different management styles: Autonomy lends itself well to any workplace that can benefit from creativity. And, while that’s a very broad label, different workplaces can require different approaches. For example, assembly line workers in a factory probably don’t have room to be innovative when their job is repeatedly screwing the same two bits of metal together.

The benefits of employee autonomy at work

So, after all of that, you might be wondering what’s so great about autonomy that we’re willing to overlook all of that. Well...

  • High-autonomy workplaces are more productive: A great example of how empowerment and autonomy at work enable self-motivation is the fact that the majority of legal workers were more or equally as productive working from home compared to before the pandemic.
  • Autonomy supports employee wellbeing: When you don’t have to bend over backwards to fit someone else’s definition of a productive employee, it makes work a lot less stressful.
  • Autonomy frees up managers for more important things: When you can trust your team to work unsupervised, that means you can get on with what actually matters, rather than wasting time breathing down their necks.
  • Autonomy and flexibility make careers more accessible: When people have control over when, where and how they work, it can help make formerly exclusive and demanding full-time careers much more accessible. Not only is that great for employees, but it gives you a much deeper pool of potential applicants too.

Giving your employees more rope to work with

To round things off, let’s go over some simple tips for how to get more autonomy at work for you and your team.

First off, job flexibility is a must. Businesses have taken great (and necessary) strides with remote work in the last year, but true autonomy will require employers to implement other arrangements for job flexibility too. Things like core hours and four-day weeks can help give staff more control over their working lives.

Secondly, managers need to take a more results-focused approach. Focusing too much on the minutiae of how things get done is what leads to micromanagement. Emphasising the results by recognising and highlighting your employee’s achievements will encourage them to keep innovating behind the scenes.

And thirdly, we want to mention employee education. It’s not the first thing you think of when you imagine autonomy, but remember: Ensuring employees have the training to succeed is the best way to create autonomous workers who get results. Investing in broader skillsets makes people more independent and capable of innovation.

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