Denise is a senior project manager at an educational services firm, and she is frustrated with all the hoops she has to jump through to log a new client into the company system. On her busiest days, she skips some steps in the tedious process to speed up her own efficiency.

While maintaining oversight of functions such as risk management is a critical task for an organization, so, too, is granting employees the flexibility to manage their own work to allow for growth.

Fifty-one percent of executives "bend the rules" at work to be more productive, while 32 percent said they did so to retain a customer, according to a global survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). In general, employees felt that greater freedom in the workplace leads to better job performance.

The survey sample consisted of 227 executives from industries including government, education, professional services, life sciences, and financial services. More than half of the respondents held positions at the senior vice president level or higher, and 41 percent were C-suite professionals or board members.

The big implication is how to go about providing employees with more autonomy while keeping your organization in check, notes Dan Armstrong, senior editor for the EIU group. He suggests starting with the ideas of visibility and transparency. "If you have transparency, you can see if people are doing things that expose your organization to risk," he says.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents noted that their companies have been increasing centralized control of certain business functions to cut costs or operate more efficiently within the last five years, while 57 percent of respondents said that their companies had been working on giving more decision-making authority to their operating units. Notably, 42 percent of respondents reported that their companies have been working on both aspects.

Often when finding a balance, knowledge workers may have to give up a little control to gain more overall freedom. The solution comes in the form of new technologies that help streamline business processes while still retaining their integrity. However, it's not smart to put the cart before the horse when implementing new tools.


"Set company business goals first and then figure out tools to fulfill those goals," says Rob O'Regan, contributing editor for EIU.

For example, Transamerica Financial Advisors implemented a new "paperless office" system called Transamerica Synergy in 2007, wherein all paper-based client and back-office transactions were automated. Benefits included both indirectly and directly improved communications, lower overnight shipping costs, fewer physical storage requirements for paper documents, and most importantly, improved broker-client relationships.

According to the report, other elements to help businesses find a balance between autonomy and control include overcommunicating with key stakeholders and committing to proper training and support.

The Transamerica Synergy platform was promoted for two years before full implementation, and a steering committee was formed to help the project along. Adoption of agreed-upon standards and a focus on shared practices can also go a long way in helping to ensure that business processes are followed while still allowing for employee input and discretion.

Notes O'Regan, "It's [about] providing standards, and then allowing each function to decide the best way to implement the standards for themselves."