Organizations that equip their workers with the technology to enable greater independence will benefit from a more committed and higher-performing workforce.
Do you trust your employees? Psychology suggests you should. When employees are trusted, empowered, and equipped to make certain decisions about how, when, and where they work—a concept known as job autonomy—it results in positive outcomes for both the worker and employer.
As technology pushes the limits of what’s possible, business leaders can either stick to the status quo or take action to enable their employees to be more autonomous. Still not convinced? Let’s take a deeper dive.
What Is Autonomy and Why Does It Matter?
According to the psychological theory of self-determination, autonomy plays a major role in helping people feel motivated and fulfilled. Self-determination theory defines autonomy as feeling in control of one’s decisions and behaviors. The reason autonomy is so impactful on motivation is that when people feel their choices have an effect on the output, they feel more responsible for their role and more invested in the ultimate outcome.
For example, consider the Montessori philosophy of education, which strongly values autonomy. Unlike a traditional, highly structured classroom setting, a Montessori environment gives kids the freedom to choose what to work on, how to complete tasks, how long they work on them, whom they work with, and more. In one study, students rated themselves as being highly self-motivated to do their schoolwork—no small feat when talking to your average K-12th grade student.
Applied to the workplace, job autonomy refers to the independence an employee has over aspects of their work, like task management and completion, working hours, and working environment. By entrusting employees with greater autonomy, they perceive themselves as active contributors to company success. Employers that give employees a high degree of autonomy see improvements in everything from creative thinking to customer service.
Despite the Advantages, Many Workers Don’t Have Autonomy
For knowledge workers who are desk-based, the concept of autonomy should sound familiar. Most desk-based workers have a certain degree of freedom to decide how to spend their day, how to execute certain tasks, and more. Sure, they may have deadlines or quotas they’re held accountable to, but for the most part information workers are given a high degree of autonomy and trust.
But for the remaining 80 percent of the world’s workforce who don’t work at a desk, there is a wide variability to the amount of autonomy they have. Most gig economy workers, for example, tend to have a high degree of freedom, like the self-employed dog walker who decides the number of hours they work, where they go, and the number of walks they’ll complete.
However, the level of autonomy available to Wag walkers isn’t the reality for the vast majority of deskless workers. In fact, my company Skedulo’s most recent research report found only 6 percent of organizations feel their deskless workforce is “very autonomous,” and nearly one-in-three workers have low or limited control.
It’s easy for the CEO of a deskless productivity company to tout these statistics—and clearly my opinions are swayed by what I do. But it’s hard to ignore this overwhelming consensus: Ninety-seven percent of organizations that employ deskless workers agree increased employee autonomy would improve job performance, employee retention, client satisfaction, and market share.
Organizations that employ deskless workers are missing out on opportunities to empower their workforce, leaving the door open for employee frustration, attrition, and innovative competitors to sweep up skilled employees.
Achieving Autonomy Starts with the Right Technology
Historically, this lack of autonomy for deskless workers was due to insufficient mobile technology. But lack of technology isn’t the case anymore. Powerful, sophisticated mobile computing platforms, like smartphones, wearables, and drones, can complement and extend deskless workers’ capabilities in the field.
Today’s problem is the lack of technology adoption—not enough workers are equipped with tools that enable sophisticated decision-making and task management. Our study found only 6 percent of organizations relied entirely on digital processes for deskless work, and 44 percent of organizations rely on paper-based processes half of the time or more.
To illustrate how deskless employees can experience moments of autonomy, consider the role of an internet cable technician. Though their schedule and assignments are determined for them, there are still opportunities when improvisation could be helpful, like making an upsell in the event the customer needs new equipment. Giving the cable technician the opportunity (and technology) to quickly solve customer needs through agile decision-making can boost customer satisfaction and organizational efficiency.
The Future of Work Is Already Here
The pandemic and ensuing widespread digital transformation have made work more flexible—and portable—than ever before. Innovative companies are going to double down on these gains, providing employees with the autonomy to choose their ideal way of working. For deskless workers who have historically lacked autonomy, the potential gains are even greater.
Organizations that equip their workers with the technology to enable greater independence will benefit from a more motivated, committed, and higher-performing workforce—and experience greater agility, innovation, and operational efficiencies in the process.