These days the word flexibility enjoys a mantra-like status across the corporate world. With companies going out of their way to demonstrate just how flexible they are, we cannot help but wonder if this so-called benefit should be reexamined. And by reexamined we mean have its definition finally updated to what employees really mean by it, which is simply workplace autonomy.
Flexibility is no longer enough
When remote work was first introduced, employees went to great lengths to preserve efficiency outside the office. People felt they had to prove their loyalty and they did, simultaneously juggling family responsibilities and the overwhelming fatigue of uncertainty.
Motivation was not scarce either with jobs on the line and a newfound freedom to preserve. Now businesses thrive on more focus time, and personal lives benefit from hassle-free days, yet there is still a certain smugness in the way companies advertise their jobs as flexible.
The problem with flexibility is that it implies at least some limit and centralised control. In many cases, these limitations are in place just for the sake of keeping a sense of corporate order that nobody identifies with at this point. Flexibility in this form is no longer relevant or sufficient.
Is autonomy the word we are looking for?
We are not really looking for any word here but we probably need one for semiotic reasons. Even if we choose to forgo attaching a term to the new circumstances we talk about, sticking to the old word makes it too easy to perpetuate the limitations associated with it.
So, we will opt for autonomy for now and will not claim to provide a lofty definition. After all, the moment we define it, we take away the core value we want it to express, viz. giving employees the freedom to define their workplace routines without expecting them to be apologetic about it.
A definition to defy all definitions
Let us try to rein in the ambiguity and suggest a humble definition of autonomy the way we see it at Infinite Lambda.
Workplace autonomy has three main pillars:
The freedom to choose whether to go to the office each day and the ability to act on this choice is central here. Essentially, this is about building the employee’s confidence that their choice is valid per se and does not have to be sanctioned by management, recorded or tracked.
In the age of digital communication, definitions of engagement have been defying face-to-face conversations for over a decade. Some companies still reward office-goers by granting more time off to people working onsite. Such practices are harmful as they pitch employees against one another and, eventually, commit to measuring adherence to habits rather than performance.
Finally, it is the employer’s responsibility to provide the employee with the means to do their job. Practices that aim to deter employees from working remotely (e.g. by keeping essential equipment in the office) are simply disrespectful as they purposefully make an employee’s job more difficult even in the face of excellent performance.
The importance of being a good cultural fit in earnest
Casually establishing the lifestyle and routine that works best for someone should not conflict their work ethics. If it does, it is a matter of cultural aptitude, which cannot be fixed by any number of corporate policies and restrictions.
Normalising autonomy depends on personal standards rather than corporate ones, so, it is worth focusing on building a team driven by sound judgement and trust. This way, you will actually have employees that can work autonomously rather than try to design a flurry of rules to reassure them they are capable of doing this efficiently when they are clearly not.
A word on expectations
Workplace autonomy, as trendy as it has become (and as likely as it is to become even trendier), should be viewed in the context of a specific organisation and not in the wider context of the entire tech industry.
Companies should be clear on what they expect from their teams and be frank with them. Not every business can grant fully remote opportunities or dispense with working hours altogether. However, you need to communicate the rules and make sure they are reasonable and fair, so that employees know exactly what is expected of them.
Finally, if you want to embrace workplace autonomy, you need to stay open-minded to individual needs. This is all about personal freedom, so the moment you shape the vision of it according to your preferences without a solid reason behind it, you are virtually compromising the idea itself.
True, smaller companies will find it easier to experiment but larger ones might have the resources and policies in place needed to maintain balance, culture and efficiency in autonomous teams.