Flexibility vs. Autonomy in the Modern Workforce

We are now fully entrenched in the age of workplace flexibility. The term “hybrid work schedule” dominates conversations (and hiring outcomes) between prospects and employers like it never has before. And for organizations looking to remain competitive, enabling and empowering employee autonomy will be the single most important catalyst of workplace flexibility and employee contentment.


New flexibility for a New Kind of Workplace

Workplace flexibility means ensuring workers can connect to the company network and get work done remotely via a mutually agreed upon schedule.

Flexibility is often not the goal for many employers who tend to want to control the workplace narrative. Furthermore, while flexibility is great, what employees appear to really want is autonomy. In this context, autonomy is when workers have the ability to decide how, where, and when they do their work with little to-no company oversight. This is a hot button debate in the tech recruiting industry.

Flexibility by Way of Autonomy

In a recent study, over 5,000 “knowledge workers” (including those who work in data, tech, and digital automation) around the world were asked what the ideal work arrangement looks like. 59% reported flexibility is more important than salary or benefits, and 77% said they’d prefer to work for companies that offer the ability to work from anywhere rather than mandating work in a corporate office setting.

“Mandates feel like a violation of autonomy, [which can trigger] important drivers of threat and reward in the brain,” says David Rock and Christy Pruitt-Haynes, authors of a recent article entitled “Why Mandates make us feel threatened.”

When post-pandemic back-to-office mandates started cropping up, data showed employees reacted with an extremely strong degree of aversion. Now, 59% of workers say they wouldn’t work for a company that requires going into a physical office five (5) days a week.

“59% of workers say they would not work for a company that requires going into a physical office five (5) days a week.”

Apple recently told employees they were expected back at the office at least three (3) days a week, which reportedly led to multiple resignations. The sentiment was that Apple employees felt “…not just unheard, but actively ignored” causing them to send a letter to management outlining their discontent.

This data paints a picture of the future based on flexibility by way of autonomy, suggesting hybrid work strategies are now a critical talking point of the modern workplace.

Unpacking Employee Autonomy

Autonomy is more than just a popular trend with new hires—it makes a lot of competitive sense for employers. According to psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, self-determination is made up of three (3) components: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy was embraced as “…the desire to be the causal agent of one’s own life.”

When employers offer their workers greater autonomy, employees experience higher degrees of satisfaction, fulfillment, and engagement at work.

The Relationship Between Autonomy and Flexibility

Working from both home and office, with a mandated number of days per week in the office, is fast becoming the most common work schedule model. It’s reinforced with a high level of advocacy by many large organizations like Adobe, Citigroup, American Airlines, and Google.

The easiest way to distinguish hybrid work models from one another is not just mandating where or when employees work, but by the amount of autonomy they’re given to decide this on their own.

Autonomy Hierarchy Scenarios:

  • Low autonomy, low flexibility:
    full time in-office mandate (increasingly less popular with employees)

  • Low autonomy, medium flexibility:
    a mix of work from both the home and office, but the organization tells workers when to be where

  • Medium autonomy, medium flexibility:
    workers can work from multiple locations, but with a minimum number of days required in the office

  • Medium autonomy, high flexibility:
    employees can work remotely full time

  • High autonomy, high flexibility:
    employees can work wherever, whenever, with full access to the organization’s office space

Employees are generally more content when granted greater access to workplace flexibility. The same cannot be said for employees granted a low degree of autonomy by their organization.

Data shows employees want flexibility by way of autonomy and are likely to seek employment elsewhere to get it. Maximizing employee autonomy is becoming less of a workplace benefit and more of a necessity for employers to remain competitive and relevant.

“Employees are generally more content when granted greater access to workplace flexibility.”

Three Steps to Enabling Autonomy

Let’s see how businesses can empower employees with the necessary autonomy for mutual benefit:

  1. Establish Principles, not Policies
    Policy-driven mandates on where and when to work are often rejected by employees based on their inherent disregard to autonomy.

  2. Invest in Competence and Relatedness
    Self-determination is made up of three (3) parts: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. All three are highly intertwined and must all be present for humans to be motivated and fulfilled.

  3. Give Employees the Tools to Work Autonomously
    The tools needed in industrial times brought workers to a physical workplace. Today, the location-specific way of working we still abide by has largely become outdated along with other ideas like the nine-to-five workday.

Technology enables us to work from almost anywhere at any time, a byproduct of changes necessitated by the 2020 pandemic. 71% of the global workforce now sees the physical office space as a social amenity and not mandatory for work. Studies show productivity increased 30% during the quarantine as workers were more effective working from home.

“71% of the global workforce now sees the physical office space as a social amenity and not mandatory for work.”

In closing, 52% of survey respondents say they’d prefer to work from home but are concerned their career would suffer long-term. To reignite a sense of togetherness, leaders must focus on building a remote-first (not remote-only) organizational culture, so employees have a clear line of sight to their role within the organization, regardless of their physical location.

Lastly, for those organizations whose employees have expressed a desire for increased flexibility, building a remote-friendly organizational culture will be critical to morale and productivity.

Giving employees the autonomy to determine where they work, as well as supporting them with the right principles, training, and tools will result in a more flexible, motivated, and higher performing workforce.

About the Author

Vince Dorazio has 20+ years of experience in the recruiting and tech industry. He is currently the Founder & CEO of UpRecruit, a recruiting platform that intelligently matches tech talent to innovative companies. He has a passion for the start-up community and serves as a mentor, advisor, and board member to multiple SaaS companies and non-profits.