What Is Employee Autonomy at Work and How Can HR Leaders Support It?

More than 4.7 million people work remotely in the USA, at least half of the time. And while companies allowing remote work may have different models and processes, one thing's for certain: employee autonomy at work becomes even more crucial in remote, hybrid, and global/ async teams.

Why is that? What is even employee autonomy? Should you put effort into supporting it?

Read on and find out more.


  • Employee autonomy at work means employees have the freedom to decide how they want to complete their work, as long as it aligns with the company's goals and guidelines.
  • Employee autonomy is all about trust and giving people personal space to do their jobs and put their expertise to work.
  • Autonomy at work differs from personal autonomy because it's about being able to make decisions that will benefit the team as a whole, not just the individual.
  • Workplace autonomy examples include front-end developers, designers, salespersons, and marketing team leads who are trusted to use their expertise to get the job done.
  • Workplace autonomy benefits include increased job satisfaction, improved motivation, improved quality of work, and better problem-solving skills.

What Is Employee Autonomy at Work?

Employee autonomy at work can be defined as the ability of employees to make decisions about their work without having to go through a hierarchical chain of command. In other words, when a workplace gives employees autonomy at work, that means employees have the freedom to decide how they want to complete their work, as long as it aligns with the company's goals (and with the team.)

It is worth nothing that employee autonomy and hybrid work are tightly connected. In essence, employee autonomy is all about trust. Knowing and trusting that your team will do the right thing, at the right time, to benefit the entire company is all about giving people personal space to do their jobs and put their expertise to work.

The whole concept of "empowerment" at work is similar but not quite the same as employee autonomy. Empowerment usually comes from the top down, while employee autonomy should ideally be present at all levels of a company.

One more thing to remember about employee autonomy: it doesn't mean that there are no rules or guidelines. In fact, in order for autonomy to work, there need to be some rules and guidelines in place so that everyone knows what is expected of them.

colleagues meeting

How Does Autonomy at Work Differ from Personal Autonomy?

Autonomy at work and personal autonomy are connected, but they are not 100% the same concepts. Here's a quick overview of how they differ:

  • Autonomy at work is about having the freedom to make decisions about your work without having to go through a hierarchical chain of command.
  • Personal autonomy, on the other hand, is about being in control of your own life and making your own decisions.

So while personal autonomy is about you as an individual, employee autonomy at work is about you as part of a team. It's about being able to make decisions that will benefit the team as a whole, not just yourself.

The key difference here is the goal. When you have personal autonomy, you are free to decide on a goal and apply various tactics to get there. When you have workplace autonomy, the goal is decided together, as a team, and you have the freedom to choose the tactics you need to apply to reach the goal.

Examples of Workplace Autonomy

To help you better understand workplace autonomy and what it actually involves (vs. what it may not involve), let's take a look at some examples.

Workplace Autonomy Example #1

You're a front-end developer and your team is working on a new project. The project manager assigns the tasks and you are given a deadline. But instead of telling you how to do your job, she trusts that you will use your expertise and experience to get the job done. She may give you some guidelines, but ultimately it's up to you to decide how you want to complete the task.

Workplace Autonomy Example #2

You're a designer on a remote team. Your team is working on a new website design and you are in charge of the home page. The project manager sends you the wireframes and outlines the goals for the home page. But instead of telling you what elements to use and where to put them, she trusts that you will use your creativity and expertise to come up with a design that meets the goals.

Workplace Autonomy Example #3

You're a salesperson working from home. Your team's goal is to increase sales by X% this quarter. You are given a list of leads and it's up to you to decide how you want to follow up with them. You may decide to call some, email others, and meet with a few in person. But ultimately it's up to you to decide how you want to approach each lead.

Workplace Autonomy Example #4

You're a marketing team lead and your SEO Manager is a mother of three. She is an excellent professional and always has the best ideas and the best implementation. However, a traditional 9 to 5 is incongruent to having to take care of her kids. Because her workplace offers employee autonomy, however, she is able to work in a hybrid setting, using async processes and tools to deliver the best work there is. She does this to the rhythm of her own beat, she is never late, and her deliveries yield great results.

woman working from home

Why Give Employees Autonomy? Individual and Company Benefits

Now that you have a better understanding of what workplace autonomy actually is, you may be wondering why it's so important. After all, doesn't it make more sense for the leader to just tell the team what to do?

The answer is no. In fact, there are many benefits of employee autonomy, both for the individual and for the company as a whole.

Workplace Autonomy Benefits for Employees

Some of the most touted employee benefits of workplace autonomy include the following:

Increased Job Satisfaction

When you have the freedom to do your job the way you want to, you are more likely to be satisfied with your work. Improved Motivation: Having autonomy at work can lead to increased motivation as you feel more invested in your work and see the impact of your decisions. Great

ideas can come from anywhere, but they are more likely to be implemented when employees feel empowered to act on them.

Improved Quality of Work

When you have the freedom to choose your own methods and approach, you are able to do your best work. You're also more likely to catch errors and be innovative in your solutions.

Better Productivity

Autonomous workers are often more productive as they can work at their own pace and in their own way. They don't have to wait for someone else to tell them what to do or how to do it. This also means that they can use their work time as they please, in a flexible way.

More Ownership & Skill Development

Ownership is one of the key drivers of career growth. When you have autonomous work, you have more ownership over your projects and your career. This can lead to increased responsibility and opportunities for career advancement.

Improved Mental Health & Well-being 

Being trusted feels nice – and it can give you the self-confidence boost you need to achieve everything you set your mind to. Working in a team that gives you employee autonomy is one of the best ways to improve your well-being and mental health in relation to work. 

Workplace Autonomy Benefits for Companies

What's in it for you as an employer? Here's a quick list of workplace autonomy benefits for companies:

Reduced Training Costs

Autonomous workers require less training as they are more likely to be self-starters who can figure things out on their own.

Increased Engagement & Motivation

Employees who have autonomous work are more likely to be engaged and motivated as they feel a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for their work.

Improved Quality & Productivity

Autonomous workers often produce higher quality work as they can approach tasks in the way that makes the most sense to them. They are also generally more productive as they don't have to wait for someone else to tell them what to do.

Greater Flexibility

Autonomous work can lead to greater flexibility as employees are able to work when and how they want. This can be especially beneficial for parents or caregivers who need the flexibility to care for their families.

Better Retention

Employees who have autonomous work are more likely to stay with the company as they feel more invested in their work and see the impact of their decisions. Giving people autonomy and a high level of independence is at the foundation of being the kind of employer talented individuals seek

These are just some of the benefits of employee autonomy at work. If you're looking to increase engagement and motivation, reduce training costs, or improve quality and productivity, workplace autonomy may be the answer.

Do keep in mind that employee autonomy at work and flat organizational structures don't have to be one and the same. You can have a non-flat organizational structure and still give your team the autonomy they need to perform at their very best.

engaged team

Common Challenges in Implementing Autonomy at Work

Balancing Autonomy with Accountability

While introducing autonomy in the workplace can be transformative, striking a balance between freedom and responsibility often poses issues. The concept of an autonomous workplace suggests employees can decide their work paths. However, ensuring these decisions align with business goals can take time and effort. Management must ensure task ownership upholds effective oversight and accountability.

Overcoming Resistance to Change

Implementing something new invariably faces opposition, especially when that 'something' shifts conventional power dynamics and elicits fear of uncertainty. Change can cause discomfort for workers who are used to traditional hierarchical structures. Tackling these reservations head-on by clarifying why autonomy is essential & what benefits it brings forth is pivotal.

Establishing Effective Communication Channels

With increased work autonomy comes greater reliance on fluid communication channels. Employees need clear directives about role expectations and deliverables while having space for two-way feedback without micromanagement reverberations. Herein lies another challenge — fostering an open dialogue that engages but doesn't intrude upon an employee's work domain.

Managing Potential Conflicts or Misunderstandings

Once boundaries blur due to enhanced autonomy at the workplace, potential conflicts may arise—often fueled by misinterpretations regarding roles and responsibilities. Creating standard protocols that promote common understanding ensures every worker has high autonomy without stepping over one another's professional territories.

How to Enable Employee Autonomy in Hybrid Work Environment

The need to move to remote and hybrid work is now clearer than ever, with nearly three-quarters of the companies in the U.S. have implemented (or are planning to implement) some form of hybrid work. Together with this, businesses should also be ready to enable employee autonomy in a hybrid work environment, as this will help the entire team perform better, regardless of their work location (and even regardless of their work hours.)

Here are some tips on how you can empower employee autonomy in a hybrid work environment:

Define What Employee Autonomy Means for Your Company

The first step is to define what employee autonomy means for your company. What does it entail? What are the guidelines? What are the expectations? Once you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, you can start creating the policies and processes that will enable it.

Encourage Employees to Take Ownership of Their Work

Encourage your employees to take ownership of their work. This means giving them the freedom to choose their own methods and approach, as well as the responsibility for the results. When employees feel like they are in control of their work, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated.

Offer Flexible Working Arrangements

One of the best ways to enable employee autonomy is to offer flexible working arrangements. This could include things like remote work, flexi-time, or compressed work weeks. When employees have the flexibility to choose when and where they work, they are more likely to be productive and engaged.

Encourage Collaboration and Communication

Encourage collaboration and communication among employees, regardless of their location. This could include things like regular video check-ins, group chat rooms, or even just an open-door policy. When employees feel like they are part of a team, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated.

Provide the Tools and Resources Employees Need

Make sure employees have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs, regardless of their location. This could include things like cloud-based software, hybrid work software, mobile apps, a good internet connection, async documentation tools, quality cameras and microphones, and so on. When employees have what they need to do their jobs, they are more likely to be productive and engaged.

For example, YAROOMS hybrid work planning calendar is an easy-to-use tool tailored to support flexible (and autonomous!) scheduling in your organization. 

You can define planning targets or work-from-home thresholds, align scheduling with occupancy parameters, and ensure planning visibility to everyone in the organization. All of it - while maintaining employee autonomy to schedule their own time, resources, and space in the office.

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Enable Feedback and Give Employees a Voice

Encourage feedback from employees and give them a voice in decisions that affect their work. This could include things like regular surveys, focus groups, or even just an open door policy. When employees feel like they are being heard, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated.

Celebrate Success and Give Employees Recognition

Make sure to celebrate success and give employees recognition for a job well done. This could include things like awards, bonuses, or even just a simple thank you. When employees feel appreciated, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated.

The Future of Autonomy at Work

As we navigate through the 21st century, it's becoming increasingly clear that autonomy in the workplace has a vital role. From the digital transformation changing how we approach tasks to remote work affecting how teams operate, numerous elements shape the future of autonomy at work.

Embracing the Digital Transformation in the Workplace

The digital revolution isn't just about smart devices and cloud-based applications. It's a fundamental shift in how businesses function, nudging them to hinge more on worker autonomy. When employees access necessary information via digital platforms, they become empowered decision-makers. By leveraging real-time data and advanced analytics tools, companies can augment employee autonomy as their staff members gain clarity regarding responsibilities and job-related decisions.

Moreover, automation of routine tasks liberates workers from mundane undertakings. Instead of spending hours on manual data entry or complex computations, automated systems do this heavy lifting. Thus, employees find ample time for creative problem-solving and higher-order thinking - both hallmarks of an autonomous workplace.

Adapting to Remote Work and Virtual Collaboration

With virtual collaboration being adopted by businesses, there has been an involuntary yet notable uptick in employee autonomy. In contrast with conventional office settings where managers could oversee team activities directly, remote work obliges us to trust one another more. Often, it leads to increased worker productivity bolstered by well-utilized personal freedom.

While teleworking comes with unique challenges like lack of face-to-face interaction or easily misunderstood text communication, it can be managed effectively by establishing feasible objectives rather than stringent work schedules. Furthermore, fostering open dialogue between team members via regular hybrid meetings can go a long way toward rectifying misunderstandings and enhancing cooperation within autonomous teams.

Evolving Leadership Styles To Support Autonomy

Evolving leadership styles will also be vital in promoting autonomy at work. Traditional, hierarchical management gradually gives ground to more inclusive and supportive leadership paradigms prioritizing employee empowerment. For example, transformational leaders inspire their followers by setting challenging yet attainable goals and fostering an environment where creativity, initiative-taking, and independent decision-making are encouraged and rewarded.

As we move forward, it becomes increasingly important for leaders to embody this type of style—to cherish the potential of every worker with high autonomy and help cultivate a culture that respects and values individual freedom in task execution.

Predictions for the Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Autonomy

Artificial intelligence (AI) has immense potential to enhance workplace autonomy further. By taking over monotonous tasks and providing insights into complex patterns while learning from its operations, AI promises a future where workers have extensive freedom to cater to value-added practices.

However, AI will require us to adapt our mindsets about employment roles and what kind of work necessitates human intellect. Balancing necessary supervision with maintaining respect for individual autonomy could present visible challenges. Nonetheless, optimistically embracing these changes can assist businesses in unlocking unprecedented productivity levels within an autonomous work culture.

Act Now & Embrace Employee Autonomy at Work 

68% of all people who have ever been micromanaged say it has decreased their morale. Enabling employee autonomy is the antidote to that -- and a way to keep everyone productive, engaged, and truly dedicated to the company mission.  In a world that treasures flexibility as the most sought-after benefit, employee autonomy is the best way to build a healthy relationship between the employer and the employee

Are you ready to embrace it? 

Topics: Human resources

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