2022 and beyond
Employees, and particularly the younger generations, value a degree of control over what they do at work. Autonomy has emerged as the natural progression from flexibility.
Agency is defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as “the ability to take action or to choose what action to take”. Agency and autonomy have emerged as issues of high importance to employees. Workers with agency/autonomy have control over decisions to do with when, where and how they work. Agency and autonomy can be distinguished from flexibility which does not necessarily include the same element of control.
Autonomy in work is dependent on trust. Engendering trust relies on authenticity, consistency, transparency, empathy and engagement. Organisations with high levels of trust report greater productivity, improved wellbeing and better engagement than those with low trust.
In many organisations the traditional, hierarchical relationship of service is evolving to one of mutuality, based on trust and autonomy. This shift is predominantly driven by changing values and priorities in the workforce and the greater leverage which skilled workers are experiencing in a labour market with acute and long-term skills shortages.
A recent survey by the Resolution Foundation found that: “people valued variety, or conversely, disliked the repetitive elements of their jobs. Being able to mix and match tasks at work made for a better experience, a finding consistent with studies that show autonomy is linked to job satisfaction.” These findings are supported by research by Harvard Business School which reported that where employees could structure their work to reduce repetitive tasks, productivity and retention improved. Finding ways to empower employees to take stewardship over their work and environment will be key to building trust and loyalty.
The adoption of unlimited paid holiday policies which emerged some years ago are sometimes pointed to as the epitome of autonomy. Under these types of policies, employees can choose how much holiday to take, provided they have completed their work. This is particularly evident among Silicon Valley tech companies. A number of businesses adopting this approach reported positive gains in productivity and employee satisfaction. However, others experienced a reduction in the amount of holiday employees took and increased levels of uncertainty in managing work. As employers continue to seek out novel ways to attract and retain employees, new ways of managing time off will continue to emerge.
Increased levels of control and autonomy have enabled people to balance working more than one job. Alongside the growth of second jobs and portfolio careers, a feature of the last couple of years has been the rapid growth of “side hustles ” – additional work picked up outside of an individual’s main employment or as a means of providing financial support during periods of study. These side hustles vary from, for example, evening pub or restaurant work to small businesses run from home (typically home-based selling online made increasingly possible by easily accessible technology platforms). The numbers of the working population who are exploring these options is growing in light of the cost of living crisis, 46% of people in the UK (and 70% of young people) report having a second job with a similar number in the US reporting a “side hustle”. The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey found that 43% of Gen Z and 33% of millennials had taken another paying job in addition to their primary work.