“Millionaires, authors or bums”… Was this Deloitte partner right to deride employee autonomy?
Updated 26th February 2023
Employee autonomy is one of the things often touted as a bit of a magic bullet solution. People see it as a catalyst for things like engagement, wellbeing and productivity. Ourselves included. 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 Deloitte senior leader doesn’t believe in employee autonomy...
Back in 2021, 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. Instead, let's 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. Taking 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 able 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.
Curry ignores the required standard of productivity that's 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. Deloitte announced that their 20,000 UK staff will be able to decide when, where and how they work. They made this announcement in June, roughly a month before Curry's own comments.
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. Some bosses have an adversarial relationship with their staff. In those situations, 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. Some managers reject the idea of employee autonomy at work, simply because they don't trust their team to act without supervision. But, remember, you're their leader, not their prison warden.
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 your job is repeatedly screwing the same two bits of metal together, there are only so many ways to approach it.
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. It goes to show that you don't need to push people when they care about their work.
Autonomy supports employee wellbeing
Work is a lot less stressful when you aren't trying to fit someone else's definition of a productive employee. Not having to bend over backwards to please someone else frees you up to pursue things your own way. It also means you can balance your work and personal lives better in terms of scheduling and surprises. If a personal emergency comes up, you're free to step away and make up the time later.
The CIPD has established seven overlapping domains of employee wellbeing. The second of these, right after health, is good work. This is affected by things like work environment, management and reasonable job demands. But one of the most important criteria for good work is personal autonomy. According to CIPD, this includes not just control over your work and the ability to innovate. But also whistleblowing to hold colleagues or even your employer accountable.
Autonomy frees up managers for more important things
Rather than wasting time breathing down your team's necks, trust them to work unsupervised. That frees you up as a manager to tackle the things you can't delegate for one reason or another. Maybe you need to get ready for review season, or set up OKRs for the next quarter. You're like the person with the broom in Olympic curling. It's your job to clear the path, so that your team can go as far as possible. And you can't clear the way ahead while watching them from behind.
Autonomy and flexibility make careers more accessible
Having control over when, where and how you work makes formerly exclusive and demanding full-time careers much more accessible. Not only is that great for employees, but it gives companies a much deeper pool of potential applicants too. In that sense, having employee autonomy at work is a win/win outcome.
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. Don't focus too much on the minutiae of how things get done. That's 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.