Workplace flexibility is here to stay and has become a major draw in attracting and retaining top talent. Often flexibility means a hybrid work environment where employees can work from home—or anywhere they want—a few days a week and in the office the other days. However, workers are now starting to more clearly communicate what exactly it is they are searching for. “If you listen to what they’re saying, they’re not really talking about flexibility, they’re talking about autonomy. That’s an important differentiator,” states Radostina Purvanova, a professor of leadership and management at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

What is autonomous leadership?

Autonomy is the ability of employees to do their jobs when, where, and how they do best and see fit. Autonomous leadership:

  • Emphasizes employee independence and adaptability.
  • Requires leadership to trust their employees.
  • Allows managers to develop each team member’s skills so he/she can be proactive and accountable for their work.
  • Gives teams the tools and resources they need to succeed and the authority to make decisions relevant to their position independent of input from their manager.
  • Encourages everyone on a team to invest in their development, learn how to self-manage, and solve problems on their own.

The relationship between autonomy and flexibility

Since the start of the pandemic, we have heard and read about the need for organizations to offer remote and/or hybrid work arrangements to attract and retain talent in today’s candidate-driven market. However, according to an October 2021 Harvard Business Review (HBR) study, employees prefer autonomy over flexibility. HBR created a hierarchy to examine the most common workplace arrangements in the post-pandemic work world and compared the level of autonomy and flexibility of each:

  • Low autonomy, low flexibility: My employer requires that I be in the office full-time.
  • Low autonomy, medium flexibility: I work hybrid from both my home and the office. My company tells me which days to be in which place each week.
  • Medium autonomy, medium flexibility: I can work from anywhere I want but am required to be in the office a minimum number of days each week.
  • Medium autonomy, high flexibility: I am mandated to work remotely each day but can choose where I want to work.
  • High autonomy, high flexibility: I can work wherever and whenever I want. I have full access to my company’s office space.

Benefits of an autonomous leadership

The Future Forum Pulse found that 80 percent of employees want flexibility in wherethey can work and 94 percent want more flexibility in when they work. How do employees and employers benefit when an autonomous leadership approach is practiced within their organization?

  • Increased productivity: 71 percent of executives believe that employee engagement is critical to their organization’s success.An employee that is allowed autonomy is self-motived, more likely to engage with his or her work, and be inspired to achieve. This results in increased productivity and 22 percent more profit for your business.  
  • Faster project turnaround: When each member of a team is trusted to do their job and has full control over how they complete their work, tasks can be completed efficiently. This results in faster project turnaround time with each task being accomplished by the team member that has the most bandwidth and knowledge.
  • Growth opportunities: When employees are granted the autonomy to structure their own work day and manage their responsibilities, they have more freedom to create new opportunities and growth for themselves. This results in an ability to explore new ways to utilize their skills and discover improvements in current workflows.
  • Innovative ideas: When workplace restrictions are removed, autonomous leaders promote creativity and innovation in their workers who gain the ability to experiment with new ideas and ways of doing tasks.  
  • Improved employee morale: When employees can work autonomously,they feel valued, respected, and trusted by their manager and organization. This contributes to increased morale and worker engagement. “If you’re an employer who is truly interested in recruiting and retaining employees using a newfound love for flexibility, you have to pair that up with a newfound love for trust in your employees,” says Purvanova.

Not a one size fits all solution

High flexibility and an autonomous leadership approach may not work for all employees and across all organizations. Not all employees need the same balance to be happy and productive: 

  • Age: Younger Gen Z and Millenial workers have different needs than their older Gen X and Baby Boomer colleagues. Early-career employees need to be immersed with their peers to develop relationships, find mentors within the company, and feel a sense of belonging. They also require the in-person training and oversight that working in the office provides. More seasoned employees may not require as much in-person work and benefit more from having more flexibility and autonomy.
  • Introvert vs. extrovert: Extroverts may miss working in a shared setting where interacting with their coworkers energizes them and makes them feel part of a team. On the other hand, introverts may be more productive working remotely where they have control over external distractions and noise.

Autonomous leadership gives employees the freedom to finish their work on their terms but in pursuit of a common organizational goal. It’s up to each company to determine the level of flexibility and autonomy to offer its workers based on its corporate culture and industry. However, the overall goal should be to implement policies that allow each employee to do his or her best work.

This blog was written by TalentRise Senior Talent Management and Organizational Transformational Consultant Andrew Nash.