Autonomy at Work: Why Working on Your Own Terms Can Make All the Difference

by | Last updated Sep 6, 2021 | Executive Women

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the majority of the American workforce to shelter in place and as a result, work from home, there were a lot of predictions as to how the workplace would change forever. And as more and more people get vaccinated and businesses make plans to reopen their offices, those discussions have definitely come up again.

A major reason for this is the level of flexibility people have experienced from working remotely. In addition to removing the previous stigma of working from home, the pandemic also highlighted the importance of workplace autonomy and its effects on job satisfaction and beyond.

What Is Workplace Autonomy?


Workplace autonomy is essentially defined as “the power to shape your work environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best.” The specifics of what that looks like inevitably vary from person to person, but the core idea is the same: employees are empowered to have control over their work and lives while employers actually get more value from their teams. As Forbes puts it, “Autonomy is the umbrella for choice, independence, solitude, and empowerment. Autonomy is also a key driver of happiness in the workplace.”

However, this isn’t to say having autonomy at work means working alone or without supervision, boundaries, or guidance. Nor does it mean being your own boss or working without a safety net if things go wrong. Rather, the focus in an autonomous workplace is more about what gets done rather than how it gets done. And in order for it to succeed, the work environment must be built upon trust, respect, integrity, and accountability.

Woman at computer with cell phone

What Are the Benefits of Autonomy at Work?

Accordingly, it should be no surprise that there are a lot of benefits to promoting autonomy at work—for both employees and employers alike. For one, a 2017 University of Birmingham study found employees with higher levels of autonomy in their work reported positive effects on their overall well-being and job satisfaction. In a similar vein, a 2011 study conducted in Taiwan revealed workplace autonomy led to greater job satisfaction and a lower likelihood to transfer or leave their positions.

When you think about it, it all makes sense. When a person is given the freedom to work the way they want, they feel more trusted and valued by their employer while also enjoying a sense of ownership in their work. This leads to feeling more motivated and engaged to do their best, which in turn promotes greater productivity. And with greater productivity comes reduced labor costs, which are further lowered by that fact that no time is wasted micromanaging people and managers can instead focus on more essential “big picture” tasks. At the same time, the autonomy affords the employee a level of work/life balance, which in turn boosts their job satisfaction even more. And if people are happy in their jobs, this of course means reduced turnover and higher retention rates.

In addition to this domino effect of benefits, autonomy at work is also advantageous in a larger sense because it improves workplace adaptability. When people are encouraged to problem solve and figure things out on their own, it nurtures a diversity of thought and helps keep people agile and adaptable when new challenges come their way.

What Are Examples of Autonomy at Work?

So we know autonomy at work is great, but what does it look like? As mentioned before, the specifics can vary from person to person, but some common examples include:

Being able to create your own schedule.

Schedule calendar planner

Even before the pandemic, there have been a lot of arguments about how the 9-to-5 workweek is obsolete. But things certainly came to a head when we all had to work from home along with our spouses, kids, and pets. The truth is everyone works differently, so allowing people to control their own schedules can be a major source of autonomy—whether that means starting work at 8 a.m. because you’re an early riser, signing off for a bit to run some errands, or taking a lunch break with your kids.

Being able to work where you want.

The same principles apply here. For some people, sitting at the same desk every day just works. For others, it can feel like a prison. Letting your employees work where they want—whether that’s at home, in a nearby cafe, or in the office—is an easy choice as long as the work gets done well and on time.

Woman writing

Having control over your day-to-day tasks and setting your goals.

Woman painting a canvas

In addition to the logistics of where and when you work, another example of autonomy is having some degree of creative freedom. Being able to own your ideas and goals and explore new approaches day in and day out can not only feel empowering, but also make the end results that much better.

How Do You Promote Autonomy in the Workplace?

The good news is there are a variety of ways to promote autonomy in the workplace. Below are some common approaches to get started.

  • Build a culture of trust.

    Simply put, there is no autonomy at work without trust. By being flexible, letting people work when and where they want, and focusing more on the end results, managers show they have faith in their employees and for that reason, employees feel respected and valued.

  • Allow people to make mistakes and learn from them.

    After all, we’re all human and no matter how hard we work, mistakes happen. The key is to hold people accountable and let them learn from their mistakes, not penalize them and cultivate a sense of fear for doing anything wrong.

  • Give employees more ownership.

    When people feel like they own part of a project, it motivates them to be all the more effective, especially if the part is aligned with their skill sets or passions.

  • Ask for and listen to employees’ honest feedback.

    It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and ask your teams how things can be improved. And it’s even more important to follow through by making an effort to implement what you heard.

  • Provide them with the tools they need.

    Empowering your employees to succeed also means giving them the resources necessary to reach their goals. Whether that’s training, technology, or other supplies, you need to invest in the proper tools to set them up for success and promote their autonomy.

  • Hire autonomous people.

    Finding people who naturally engage with the work and know how to take charge is one of the easiest ways to promote autonomy in the workplace. When managers get out of the way, these employees are enabled to take risks and try new ideas.

How Do You Demonstrate Autonomy at Work?

When it comes to demonstrating autonomy at work, there are a few key ways to go about it. For one, it’s important to be open in your communications with your manager. Whether you’re talking about a recent success, a frustrating challenge, or a project or process that doesn’t seem to be working, being honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly is essential. Although some people may think this would be the opposite of having autonomy at work, it actually demonstrates your self-awareness and commitment to building trust.


Another way to demonstrate autonomy at work is to be organized. If you have free rein on what your day looks like, it’s up to you how you want to structure your time and workflow and guarantee that you meet your deadlines.


Lastly, demonstrating autonomy at work is also about being proactive—in establishing your work/life balance, in getting feedback from your manager and peers to improve your quality of work, and in getting to work on the projects you’re passionate about. Because the truth is the world may be your oyster, but it’s ultimately up to you to make things happen.


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