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Autonomy: keeping engagement during crisis

Autonomy is a crucial factor for teams to succeed. Studies have shown that autonomy is a considerable part of what makes individuals involved and satisfied with their work and essential to maintain engagement. Sense of freedom, control, and our work routines are all elements that comprise the autonomy mix: how to keep them during trying times?

COVID-19 disrupted pace. Since the beginning of the year, work dynamics have shifted worldwide, and although remote work is not unusual for many IT teams, it became the norm overnight. The lack of physical supervision, together with the pressure to maintain productivity levels, may drive leaders to push for further control, a reaction to the lack of visibility when managing a remote team. Compensatory strict rules such as imposing screen monitoring software, hourly status reports, or requiring every smallest decision to be pre-approved may seem like reasonable means to regain control over the team.

They are not. These approaches reveal an underlying lack of trust, as they are based on the assumption that individuals cannot handle their work without constant surveillance. These assumptions are also more damaging in the current scenario as they add constraints to autonomy when so much of it has already been stripped away. Individuals who are put under stress now also have to deal with a diminished perspective of the quality of their work, as if they are now back on training wheels: no one likes being patronized.

Trust, and not surveillance, is the glue holding teams together at this moment, and trusting that every team member is focused on achieving the same goal regardless of where and how they work is a big step towards building autonomy.

Story Time

A while back, I worked in a big company. We were over a hundred people divided on fronts, developing a project for an insurance industry client. Every two weeks, we were relocated to a different front and received a new set of assignments. Each assignment was dictated to the dot. Hierarchy levels were never-ending, and managers were peaking over our shoulders all day. Right from the beginning, I noticed that many colleagues considered the company a stepping stone, a temporary stop on their pursuit of better opportunities. That made me start asking coworkers why they were leaving in the first place. Their main answer: they didn't feel like they had a say in how their job was done. They couldn't see themselves growing inside the company. It didn't take long for me to feel the same way.

Although the example above comes from an extreme side, it often comes to my mind when discussing autonomy or rather its absence. Looking back, I can see that autonomy wasn't only verbally discouraged, but there were profound aspects of organizational culture that stopped its growth:

  1. Micromanagement: It stops creativity. Someone frequently micromanaged is more likely to fall-back to only doing what is strictly necessary to get by at work.
  2. Hierarchy: Top-down extensive hierarchy and bureaucracy come in pairs. Officialism disengages people and stripes away individual power to make informed decisions over their work.
  3. Blame-oriented atmosphere: Because everyone is just taking orders, no one is responsible for their actions.
  4. Lack of trust: Trust ties people together. Trust makes people in a team focused on supporting one another and succeeding at a common goal. When trust is low, individuals grow suspicious, managers overreach for control, and engagement suffers.

So all we need is autonomy, right?

One of the first job experiences I had was working on a startup. The team consisted of me, with minimal experience, and two other slightly more experienced employees. We had the freedom to give input on the project and choose when and where we wanted to work. Management was reduced to setting deadlines, and the team took most decisions. It seemed to me at the beginning that the level of autonomy we were given was just right.

But problems arose. As we made decisions, we felt we hit walls. Many of the autonomous work we put our effort in wasn't in sync with the company's strategy, and much of what we had been proposing made its way back to our desks. Frustration and tiredness crept in, and confusion as well.

But what is autonomy?

Autonomy is the freedom to exercise judgment and make appropriate decisions within a set of guidelines. It starts with accreditation. Organizational culture is the soil in which autonomy sprouts and autonomy fructifies when expressed by the worker's ability to come up and set to motion actions and plans that benefit the individual, the team, and the organization endgame.

It cannot be confused by a lack of guidance. High levels of autonomy only work when there are also high alignment levels between teams and the company's goals.

The ability to act autonomously drives ownership and creativity, enables teams to make quick decisions. When handled properly, autonomy can help to:

  • Build accountability: Allowing the team control over their work helps them understand that they are together responsible for its success.
  • Create ownership: Autonomy also means empowering people to have a say on the projects they work on. It is what makes us feel the work is as much ours as it is the business.
  • Increase job satisfaction and lower turnover: Studies show that employees that are allowed the freedom associated with autonomy are more satisfied with their jobs and consequently less inclined to leave.

When trying to build higher levels of autonomy within a team, beware of:

  • Alignment: Pushing towards the same goal and sharing a common purpose.
  • Guidance: Autonomy shouldn't make people feel lost. Leaders should make sure there's always a magnetic north to suggestions and proposals.
  • Clear boundaries: Autonomy isn't being boundless; it is being bound-safe. It's essential to empower the team while setting the limits of such power. It is a space within the company's culture and strategy, not beyond it.
  • Psychological safety: In order to make informed decisions over our work, we need to enhance our skills and perfect them. Expertise cannot thrive where there is no space to learn, be it from learning programs or our own mistakes.
  • Openness: People's decisions will be only as right as the information they have.
  • Feedback culture: Feedback includes handling difficult conversations, but it can also promote trust in leadership and help people to build confidence in their work. However, a good feedback culture doesn't just happen; it needs to be planned for.
  • Hiring autonomous people: It's fundamental to ensure the hiring process is consistent with the company's expectations. Some may feel lost if dropped in an autonomous environment because they thrive in more structured and controlled ones.

A way of dealing with the shift to remote work, and one prone to increase trust and engagement that will continue to grow even in a world post-pandemic is by promoting autonomy and empowering the team to manage themselves efficiently while building a collective sense of accountability. Finding the balance between giving full autonomy and resource to micromanaging is the key to make it work.

Mariane Pastor

Fullstack Developer at Vinta Software.