GTP22: Embedding employee autonomy into the future of work

Birmingham Business School/University of Birmingham

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2022 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2022 this involves 8 free webinars and events sharing best practice advice and guidance taking place throughout March, and a Growth Through People conference on 30th March. In addition, throughout the campaign the Chambers will be publishing thought leadership podcasts and blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Headline Partners and Sponsors – Aston University, Birmingham City Council, South and City College Birmingham and the West Midlands Combined Authority - all Growth Through People workshops are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more and register to attend Growth Through People workshops here, and the Growth Through People conference here.

The degree of control we have over our work is a key indicator of the quality of work. Autonomy at work is important both for employees because it’s connected to their well-being, and for employers, given its associated impacts on organizational commitment and employee performance. The significance of autonomy is highlighted not only in models of workplace well-being but in broader models of well-being, where control over our lives is identified as having an integral role in overall experiences of life. Autonomy in the work sphere can be broadly divided into two forms, job control (over one’s tasks and how we carry them out) and schedule control (over where we work and what hours).

Existing evidence has emphasized the potential benefits that can be realised from giving workers more control over their jobs. For example, my research published in the journal Work and Occupations, examined changes in reported well-being relative to levels of autonomy using two separate years of data for 20,000 employees from the Understanding Society survey. The findings indicate that greater levels of both control over work tasks and schedules has the potential to generate significant benefits for the employee, evident in reported levels of well-being. Moreover, the positive effects associated with informal flexibility, and working at home, offer further support to the suggestion that schedule control is highly valued, and important to employees enjoying work. The findings also revealed that the effects of autonomy are different for men and women. Schedule flexibility and control over the manner of work appeared to be more beneficial for women, allowing them to balance other tasks such as family commitments. Meanwhile, men were found to be more impacted by job tasks, the pace of work, and task order.

These findings highlight that employers can benefit not only from providing greater opportunities for autonomy, but that specific consideration needs to be given to the relative benefits that different forms of autonomy provide to different employees. Beyond these research findings the widespread evidence from the last two years following the unprecedented expansion of remote and home working in response to the pandemic offers substantial support to the argued benefits of giving employees more control over where and when they work.

Like many other components of work, autonomy has to be handled carefully. Too much autonomy can lead to a lack of environmental clarity, that is employees being unsure of exactly what they are being asked to do and how their contribution fits into the organization. Not all forms of autonomy can be offered to all employees, e.g. for practical reasons autonomy over work schedules is often not possible in occupations which are customer facing. However, where greater autonomy is feasible not offering it represents a missed opportunity for employers, and methods could be found which balance the needs of managers and employees. In addition, notionally offering autonomy alongside insecure employment, for example in zero hours or gig working arrangements, is unlikely to be effective as practical levels of autonomy are often limited as workers must work to earn and financial necessity in many cases outweighs any other decision-making criteria.

Employers may be concerned that workers will shirk if greater autonomy is offered and instead continue to favour ‘high-strain’ (low-discretion, high demand) work organization. In some cases managers may similarly view micro-management of their employees as a method of ensuring the health of their organization, not to mention their own role within it. However, ignoring the benefits of providing employees with greater levels of autonomy, and the differentiated benefits which may be derived from access to alternative forms of autonomy, represents a significant missed opportunity for employers.

Employers should look for ways of enhancing the control that employees have over their jobs. Even if this only represents a relatively small change it could deliver substantial benefits. Employers could go as far as to allow employees to engage in job crafting, that is employees taking action to shape, mould, and redefine their jobs, a strategy that has been shown to increase work engagement and potentially enhance job performance.

While approaches can take these or other forms, the evidence base on the benefits of autonomy offers a clear rationale for embedding autonomy, wherever practical, into the future of work.

Daniel Wheatley
Reader in Business and Labour Economics
Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham