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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

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Safeguard Magazine

Release your talent

Want a free (but not necessarily easy) way to tackle stress, productivity and absenteeism? JARROD HAAR advocates giving people more autonomy over how they work.

Organisational leaders are always looking for ways to enhance the performance of employees, to attract skilled workers and to retain the best. There are a number of avenues employers can explore, such as having good leaders, a supportive culture, and less demanding workloads, but one of the most fundamental aspects is job autonomy.

Job autonomy can be defined as a worker having a sense of independence, control and discretion over how they go about their work. Job autonomy can also be about consultation and ensuring workers can provide ideas and feedback into their work.

The earliest research showing the benefits of job autonomy on performance is almost 80 years old. Since then much more work has been done. We can conclude from all this research that workers who are given more job autonomy report higher satisfaction with their job and supervisors, more motivation, commitment and involvement, fewer physical injuries, better mental health and less stress. Who wouldn’t want that?

Furthermore, employees with higher job autonomy are also likely to be less absent, perform better and stay with their organisation longer. (They also report less conflict at work. If a solution to an irritating issue can be sorted out between work mates – because they have the autonomy to do so – then interpersonal relations are likely to improve and the organisation run more smoothly.)

BETTER ENGAGEMENT

Like much of the world, New Zealand organisations are highly focused on engagement. “How can I help my workforce to become more engaged?” is a mantra of HR managers the world over.

Interestingly, engagement is linked to giving people autonomy. Given the financial costs of absenteeism, and the cost of turnover being anywhere from 100% (and up) of salary for skilled workers, and much higher again for top talent, wouldn’t you think that providing employees with more autonomy is a simple and effective measure for employers to adopt?

Well, it is – and they aren’t, at least not universally.

What we find is that many organisations provide some form of job autonomy. Perhaps workers have some control over what they do, but are not asked to help shape the fundamental parts of their work. Others might be asked their advice on one aspect of their work, but not the main components. Some are simply told what to do and to get on with it! My own research in New Zealand workplaces typically finds some workers have little autonomy and some have a lot, with a heap in the middle. (By the way – having job autonomy means a worker has a lot of say over what happens on their job. It doesn’t mean they can decide to not do their job – that isn’t job autonomy but a performance management issue.)

The good news is this means there is a lot of scope within New Zealand organisations to give workers more autonomy, and thus realise those benefits identified by the research, for both the worker and their employers.

FIRST YOU MUST TRUST

One of the biggest issues with job autonomy is trust. Managers have to give up the “command and control” style of management in favour of employees making suggestions and, if necessary, changes. It can be hard for managers to give up this approach – perhaps they think workers are always looking to do less work, not more. So bringing greater job autonomy into an existing organisation might require some training about the benefits for the company – and the supervisor.

For example, a supervisor who asks questions of and seeks advice from workers is likely to see absenteeism and staff turnover issues drop, while safety and performance increases. Happily, the supervisor can then claim these benefits are due to their leadership – which in some respects would be true. Job autonomy and the associated trust leads workers to recognise that such a benefit or reward (if you will) is uncommon and they therefore reciprocate with greater effort.

This autonomy also allows employees to recognise when they are fatigued and might need to go easy for a while – leading to fewer incidents, as well as enhanced wellbeing. Research tells us they will get back up to speed once they have recovered. The good thing about job autonomy is that it is free, or at least comes at little cost. (Perhaps those supervisors who enjoy watching and scrutinising and correcting employees might need further training.)

START SLOWLY

Finally, a caveat. Is job autonomy suitable for every job, every worker, and every workplace? No. Nothing to do with employees ever is – we are complex people! But most workers will thrive when given more autonomy. And just because a workplace might appear unsuited to autonomy doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. There are examples where workers took control over the speed of a production line and achieved outstanding productivity gains, simply because they were more in control.

Organisations can increase job autonomy without having to apply it to everyone immediately. Introduce it slowly, perhaps starting with supervisors, who are more confident of their workers and the type of jobs being done, and the adaptation required of their own roles.

This approach can also highlight areas where more autonomy might be too difficult. Imagine asking employees to provide a work solution to the problem of job autonomy! If they can’t, then they are probably right – but they will still appreciate that you tried to work it into their roles, and are likely to reciprocate with positive behaviours.

It has to be expected that some few workers may abuse the privilege of autonomy, but don’t panic – those employees are probably already doing it now. That said, studies of autonomy in teams has shown that other team members can be good at keeping such people in line, so don’t think it is a fait accompli that job autonomy is unachievable.

So for anyone who wishes to try extending worker autonomy, I wish you the best of luck. And for managers who resist the notion? I say simply, let go! Trust your workers.

Jarrod Haar is Professor of Human Resources Management at Auckland University of Technology. He can provide relevant research papers on autonomy, including New Zealand studies. Contact jarrod.haar@auc.ac.nz

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