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Why We Should Be Talking About Autonomy Rather Than Flexibility

Published Fri Nov 12 2021

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Right now, it seems “flexibility” is dominating the conversation when we talk about the future of work. However, what are we talking about when we say flexibility, and is that the concept we really should be focusing on? For some leaders, flexibility means allowing employees to work wherever they want, whenever they want. For others it might be more limited in scope—“you can work from home one day a week” or something similar. However, maybe we shouldn’t be discussing flexibility at all. Maybe what we should be discussing is autonomy. While this may seem like splitting hairs, the two concepts do differ in critical ways. While flexibility is important, the ability to decide how that flexibility will be applied for ones’ self—also known as autonomy—is arguably more important in the minds of employees. How, though, can employers improve their employees’ feelings of autonomy? Start by establishing principles instead of policies. Hybrid work arrangements that contain policy-driven mandates (for example, you can work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays) are likely to be rejected by employees based on their lack of autonomy. However, if you offer a principle instead (for example, we want employees to split their time between the office and home), you’re far more likely to keep employees retained and engaged.

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