Autonomy in the Workplace: How Much is Too Much?

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? When it comes to autonomy in the workplace, the answer is: absolutely.

While many self-sufficient employees benefit from fewer distractions and more time for core work, it’s possible to go overboard. Left unchecked, autonomy can start to feel more like abandonment for your team. Striking the right balance between too much or too little autonomy is challenging, particularly for remote workforces. So, before you leave your employees to fend for themselves, make sure you know where to draw the line.

Yes, Autonomy in the Workplace Is Good

Autonomy is one of the three core pillars of a person’s motivational quality. When balanced with the other core needs of motivation — relatedness and mastery — autonomy results in more engaged employees who do better work and are more satisfied in and out of the workplace.

No one likes to be micromanaged. Embracing autonomy in the workplace shows your team members that you trust them to do their best work with minimal supervision. Less oversight doesn’t just free up your time as a manager; it also minimizes distractions for your team. Seventy-six percent of people stay away from the office when they need to get work done to avoid interruptions. More autonomy allows your team to be productive while working in the office or from home.

Flexibility can earn you more applicants as well — 72% of talent professionals agree that work flexibility is a vital aspect of the future of recruiting and HR. Companies that advocate for more autonomy and flexibility at work are likely to attract and keep talent.

But Too Much Autonomy Can Backfire

Autonomy in the workplace sounds pretty great, right? But you only reap the benefits if you strike the right balance. Here’s what can happen if you take it too far.

Employees Feel Personally Neglected

Too much autonomy can lead to employees feeling overlooked or underappreciated. If you lean too far into the hands-off management approach, your team may still crush it, but you and the rest of leadership won’t see their hard work.

Going overboard with autonomy in the workplace can cause employees to feel that management doesn’t know (or care) about what they’re working on. Your team craves real-time feedback, whether it is constructive criticism or recognition for a job well done. If you’re detached from your employees’ work, you won’t be able to offer feedback at all.

If you step too far back, you won’t know when someone is struggling, overworked, or dealing with personal issues. You could have team members melting down every day, and you’d be none the wiser.

It’s important to balance out autonomy with frequent one-on-ones. Checking in with your team members once a week creates accountability — for them and for you. Your team can share their wins and challenges, and you get to provide guidance and feedback. Plus, one-on-ones give you the opportunity to build relationships with your team members, even if they work mostly independently.

Employees Don’t Develop Professionally

When it comes to professional development, visibility matters. Autonomy often gives people the time and space they need to make progress toward their goals. However, that progress won’t help them grow if no one from leadership is around to acknowledge it.

Autonomous workers, particularly remote employees, don’t always get enough face time with their managers. Without that connection with leadership, people don’t get the chance to create a professional development plan. How can you expect your team to carve out a career path at your company if you aren’t around to see their strengths and areas of improvement?

Too much focus on autonomy can also result in top performers getting lost in the mix. Overachievers tend to say yes to new projects, regardless of their current workload, and burn themselves out instead of asking for help. When high performers don’t speak up, it’s easy for you to unintentionally overlook them while you focus on employees who have more pressing challenges.

But 42% of top performers say they value personal recognition from higher-ups. To keep your team engaged, you have to find a balance between giving your team members of all skill levels flexibility and autonomy while also providing continuous encouragement and recognition.

Autonomy in the workplace calls for formal goal tracking, progress updates, and clear milestones — all of which should be monitored through frequent one-on-ones. Talk to your employees regularly, so you can encourage them to advocate for their own passions, build new skills, and grow in their roles.

Communication Falters

Excessive autonomy in the workplace can lead to people working on an island. Without teammates to bounce ideas off of or managers to strategize with, independent employees can start to feel disconnected.

Autonomy is not synonymous with isolation — but it can feel that way if leadership does not prioritize communication and collaboration. You need to find a healthy balance. Just because someone works well independently doesn’t mean they should always work alone.

It’s equally important to create communication channels that keep your team connected. Twenty-seven percent of remote workers report communication challenges, while 13% struggle with loneliness and isolation.

Mitigate the risks with chat tools such as Slack that keep the conversation going between check-ins. You can also make small changes, like asking people to turn cameras on in video meetings or creating Slack channels for non-work topics.

Experienced remote team managers recommend over-communicating without expecting immediate responses from your team. Autonomy in the workplace doesn’t mean talking less; it means approaching conversations differently. Replace large group meetings with detailed asynchronous updates. Send messages without expecting an immediate response. Clearly define communication expectations, so people know how to share information and when.

You should also encourage weekly team stand ups, so people can collaborate with co-workers. Make sure you schedule weekly one-on-ones with your direct reports, as well. Your team needs a time specifically reserved for discussing challenges, celebrating wins, and soliciting feedback from leadership.

One-on-Ones Can Mitigate the Challenges of Autonomy in the Workplace

Use weekly one-on-ones to get ahead of the risks of going overboard with autonomy in the workplace. Share praise, and do so frequently, to show your team that you notice them and that you’re invested in their career development. Learn about their obstacles and come up with solutions together. Make sure you see your independent workers as human beings with personalities. Remember — autonomy is not about isolation; it’s about giving your team the space they need to do their best work.

Encouraging your team to be more self-sufficient in the workplace is a great way to show them you have full confidence in their abilities. But your employees want more than your trust; they also want your support and guidance. Frequent one-on-ones allow you to continuously check in on your direct reports without micromanaging every aspect of their daily routines.

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