Autonomy has become an essential element in the modern office. Not only does choice drive employee well-being and productivity, it plays an influential role in attracting and retaining a talented workforce. Studies have proven that when workers have the ability to decide when, where and how they work, they are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, perform better and view their company as more innovative than those that didn’t offer such freedom. What does this greater sense of choice have to do with the facility in which people work? Everything. The degree to which people can express their independence is influenced by their environment and how they make use of the facility to drive their productivity and performance. Let’s dive into workplace design elements and organizational strategies that foster autonomy and help build a culture of high performance.
Image Source: Kimball Showroom in Atlanta, GA
Defining Workplace Autonomy
What Autonomy is NOT
The definition of autonomy is often misunderstood, leading people to frown upon what is truly a beneficial power in the workplace. Autonomy does not mean that employees have the right to work without supervision or fellow teammates. It is not doing whatever you like whenever you like. In organizations with high levels of autonomy, supervisors clearly define the boundaries of an employee’s control and together they create an environment in which the employee can choose how autonomous he or she wishes to be. There are established procedures, manuals and guidance from management.
What Autonomy IS
There is no cross-cultural, one-size-fits-all definition for autonomy. It takes on a multitude of forms. What one person perceives as workplace freedom may differ significantly from another. Simply put, workplace autonomy is the power to shape your work environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best. Supervisors clearly outline goals and procedures but allow employees to decide the best way to achieve that goal. Organizations may let workers set their own schedules, choose their own methods or elect to work away from their desk or from home. Regardless of its definition, when people feel that they have that latitude in decision, the results are notably positive.
Image Source: Office Snapshots, United Technologies Digital Offices in NYC
The Power of Choice
A vast amount of literature and research has been released showcasing the power of choice and autonomy in the workplace. Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, which randomly sampled 2,035 workers nationwide, examined the design factors that create an effective workplace; how design can better support worker engagement, satisfaction and performance; and the influence of the workplace on organizational culture. The study found that employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work are seen as more innovative and have higher-performing employees. As shown in the graphic below, employees who were given choice in where, when and how to work reported higher levels of satisfaction, innovation and job performance.
Three years later, Gensler’s 2016 Workplace Survey randomly sampled another 4,000 U.S. workers in 11 industries to gain even further insight into the role design plays in employee performance and innovation. The survey found that the most innovative employees spend less time at their desks and more time utilizing amenities within the office, including conference rooms, open meeting areas and third spaces. These same employees reported spending 26% of an average week working away from the office entirely. Gensler’s survey concludes that investing in strategies to increase autonomy and enabling employees to work in ways which suit them best will result in a more engaged workforce with a stronger connection to the organization.
IFMA’s Distributed Work Revisited report confirms the importance of flexibility and choice within the workplace. Nearly 550 organizations were surveyed, respondents of which claimed they were already using or were about to install highly flexible workspaces within their office environments. Furnishings would provide employees with the ability to choose the best space for the task at hand, including touchdown areas, hoteling, makerspaces and free address environments. When asked why they were exploring new ways of work settings and strategies, the responses were unanimous – these workplace policies supported work-life balance for employees, boosted flexibility and technological resourcefulness, and had a positive impact on overall well-being.
Image Source: Office Snapshots, General Catalysts Offices in San Francisco, CA
Strategies that Encourage Employee Choice
Not every company can offer autonomy on the same scale. The amount of time employees are able to spend away from their desks or out of the office will vary depending on the organization and individual roles. While autonomy will take on a variety of forms, employers should carefully consider how they can empower their employees to do their best work through the spaces and tools provided to them.
Choice in Where Employees Work
Advancements in technology have untethered employees from their desks and allowed them to work effectively and efficiently throughout the office or outside its walls. Laptops, cell phones, VPN connections and other technological tools provide freedom and flexibility regardless of location. Benching systems, movable partition walls, communal tables, unassigned workspaces, mobile work carts and a multitude of other furnishings allow for employees to move about their office space, collaborating and remaining connected throughout the day. In our previous blog post discussing the transient worker and workplace design geared towards mobility, we highlighted ways in which organizations could create fluid office environments that support transient workers of all types. Head to the post now to read more about workplace design elements that allow employees choice in where they work.
Image source: Office Snapshots, David Jones and Country Road Group Offices in Melbourne, Australia
Choice in When Employees Work
Flexible work schedules are an alternative to the traditional 9-5, 40-hour work week. With tools for mobility and leniency in schedules, employees can vary their arrival and/or departure times from the office and elect to plug-in outside of the conventional time-frame. Granting employees ownership over their schedule will not only ensure a healthy work-life balance, but will offer the opportunity to work during times of the day when they are most productive. The amount of autonomy in scheduling will vary depending on each role within a company, but working towards an arrangement that provides employee choice and control will yield both individual and organizational benefits.
Choice in How Employees Work
It may prove difficult to allow employees choice in where and when they work depending on their role within the organization. Helping them modify or manipulate the way they carry out their daily tasks, however, may be a simpler strategy to alleviate stress and boost productivity. Ergonomic features such as sit-to-stand desks, keyboard trays and adjustable task chairs make it possible to change positions throughout the day. Small adjustments, such as moving or adding a monitor and turning on a task light, can make a significant difference in how employees are able to perform. Another option is offering a change of location within the workplace, as we highlighted with various tools above. This type of choice can come through flexible meeting spaces and collaboration areas, lounge and task seating, movable storage units and more.
Image Source: Office Snapshots, General Catalyst Offices in San Francisco, CA
Building Your Autonomous Workplace
As we’ve discussed above, the degree in which employee autonomy is offered within each organization will vary. By establishing control as a central component of workplace strategy, employers can optimize the potential of their workforce and their overall competitive advantage. For additional guidance in creating an autonomous environment through organizational policies and design elements, contact the CDI team.
Featured Image Source: Office Snapshots, General Catalyst Offices in San Francisco, CA
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Corporate Design Interiors (CDI) is an industry-leading commercial furniture dealership whose award-winning product knowledge, thoughtful design coupled with strategic planning deliver functional and inspiring interiors designed to foster employee well-being, productivity and engagement. CDI’s relentless focus on delivering positive workplaces mirroring the culture and vision of companies while delivering a high value investment has earned CDI diverse clients including; established Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits/public sector and energetic startups.
As a “Select” Kimball dealer, CDI’s excellence in sales, partnership, quality improvement, community involvement and overall business best practices earned it the 2017 Kimball Premier Partner Award. CDI was selected among 52 other Kimball Select dealerships throughout the country for this industry-leading honor, earning additional praise for its company culture and enterprise practices.
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