Remote working: autonomy wanted

Remote working: autonomy wanted

Usually, you work in an office full of colleagues. Now you’re sitting all alone, locked-up in your house, trying to work from home. No one checks at what time you arrive at work, and there is no one who could peek at your screen and notice that you’re actually reading an interesting blog instead of working on your tasks.

Although workplaces usually don’t have official rules for (minor) indiscretions, we keep each other quite well in line at the workplace. The first phenomenon is called social control. For example, no one will think of watching funny videos on your desktop in the workplace, your colleagues will judge you about it. When working from home, that social control is lost; making it easier to watch these videos anyway. But colleagues also offer social support. We check on each other how we’re doing and offer support when needed, this is more difficult when everyone is isolated at home. Especially during these difficult times, this is quite a risk for our well-being. Thirdly, the office provides a lot of structure. Office opening hours, daily stand-ups, and fixed meeting schedules gave your workday a structured pattern making it easy to focus. Fourthly, when working from home, you’ve lost facilities. Everything that the office provides, like a proper desk, dedicated meeting areas, fast internet and the break room are inaccessible at the moment. We are stuck in our homes for the time being.

Of course, we have the internet to sustain our working rhythm. Meetings are now held online, and some organisations (like Measuremen) even organise “quarantine pub-quizzes” through Google Hangout. But it’s hard to keep yourself dedicated when this feeling of isolation in uncertain times creeps over you. News about COVID-19, loved-ones who need care, or financial insecurity are substantial distractions conflicting with your dedication to the task at hand. Work becomes a difficult task with the lack of social control, support, daily structure and facilities. But the more we let ourselves be guided by external factors like the news, colleagues, the structures and facilities, the more we feel the need to be dependent on them. If they completely determine how you get through your workday, you won’t get any work done. You need to feel like you have the intrinsic power and need to get your stuff done. 

People who have this intrinsic motivation to do their job, regardless of any external expectations (like social control) have high autonomy. These people might need social support or facilities, but primarily get their job done. And if they don’t have the right support, structure or facilities, they will find a way to arrange it. It makes them creative and resilient. It is then also not surprising that job autonomy also has positive work outcomes: greater work satisfaction, and less intent to transfer or intentions to leave. But how do you get these people who are “on a mission”? You can’t expect that all employees have high autonomy by themselves. There is a strong interaction between the employer and the employee when it comes to finding and getting autonomy. Both the manager and the employee play a big role in getting and giving chances to show autonomy. Therefore, we focus on them one by one.

Getting employees on a mission
Especially this COVID-19 outbreak is the perfect opportunity to play with giving your employees more autonomy. The COVID-19 outbreak makes your employees rely on themselves by sitting at home with less social control. However, if your employees sit at home feeling like being “the middle-man” performing their tasks because they have to, they will be distracted by every little beep, buzz, or nudge in their work environment. If you give your employees more freedom in the way of performing their task, they will feel more responsibility in completing their tasks and feel responsible for the end product. 

From bottom-up, they might come up with inventive new ways of handling their tasks, they are the experts in their own job after all. Limited guidelines, meetings on-demand, self-chosen deadlines, and little to none enforced monitoring during the progress might improve the autonomy which workers feel. Giving your employees high autonomy is, of course, a difficult and risky task, as it is always a guess how much autonomy your employees can handle, but through acting as a supporting colleague they will probably communicate openly about their progress, giving you useful information. Again, this COVID-19 outbreak might be the perfect time to loosen the ties of your employees and give them autonomy and freedom. This freedom in their jobs might actually be the thing which employees need to feel while being locked up in their houses.  

Getting more autonomy yourselves
If you feel like you’re missing autonomy yourself; not engaged in your tasks, continuously distracted and/or dependent on your supervisors, this might be a difficult time for you. But this might then also be a time of opportunity for you. Now you are working from home, you can demand more freedom in your way of working. You can talk to your manager about doing your tasks differently and ask them to read this blog post. But you can also take more freedom by implementing a working rhythm that suits you better, like taking frequent breaks or different working times. Moreover, now is also the time to come with new ideas and innovations. Organisations need to be innovative in these challenging times, so if you start to engage in progress and face these challenges you might get great innovative ideas. I’m sure you’ll feel the autonomy and motivation to take the lead in implementing it.

Autonomy is vital to feeling free and in control. And especially during these times, it’s needed to keep on working while you’re isolated at home. However, to feel it, you need to take -and get- control of your own tasks. But autonomy comes from both directions: top-down (managers giving autonomy) and bottom-up (employees wanting autonomy). Autonomy needs trust, effort and interaction from both sides to get to mutual goals. In an organisation, employees and managers are dependent on each other, and especially during these times, we need to realise that.

Written by Justin Timmer – Data Scientist