Let’s look at a day in the life of a seven-year-old. She’s told when to wake up, where to go, how to get there, and what to wear. When she gets to school, her day is strictly organized—ruled by the clock and people in authority. She can’t go to the bathroom without permission, and she can only eat when allowed by others. Fast forward 20 years, and the world of work for millions of people stills feels this restrictive.  

Humans crave some measure of autonomy, and it’s a rare find in a workplace. Lack of agency can create stress, anxiety, and depression—the opposite of wellbeing. 

What if you found pathways to giving your employees some agency over their work? We all seem to crave control (even managers!), but perhaps we can yield our grip on things a bit and make space for employees to make decisions and have input. It might be a little scary to bring your team into an era of agency, but the rewards can be substantial. 

Research shows that autonomy is one of the most important predictors of job satisfaction, and satisfied employees are motivated and work harder. And guess what? Happy employees are more likely to stick around; they may even tell their friends how great it is to work at your organization. The problem isn’t strictly “nobody wants to work, and everyone is quitting.” When you create an environment of personal agency for employees, they come to your organization, work hard, and want to stay. 

In the spirit of small steps for big gains, here are three ways to start increasing employee agency: 

  1. ENCOURAGE AUTONOMY OVER TASKS: With some basic structure and clear communication, you can give employees control over WHAT tasks they tackle during a workday. The pandemic lockdown forced so many employees to work from home, and—voila!—virtual work actually increased productivity. Why not create an environment where people know what is expected and can get their work done on their terms, so long as deadlines are met and quality is high? 
  2. ALLOW CONTROL OVER SCHEDULES: Managers in human services know the nightmare of shift scheduling, with overnight and on-call hours added into the mix. However, if you have some flexibility, you can increase morale by giving employees some control over their own hours. Maybe your team can help with this, brainstorming about the problem and the solution as a work group.
    • Even if scheduling is intractable, think about how employees can have some control over their time at work. Can they choose when to get something done? Are they free to take breaks as needed? What is available during a workday that would invite personal agency for your employees—thereby increasing morale?  
  3. GIVE EMPLOYEES A VOICE: We should assume that employees are the ones who understand their day-to-day responsibilities best. If workflows and processes are inefficient or stressful, why not gather the people who actually do these jobs to figure out better ways that are more effective and less stressful? Why not consult with employees about what needs fixing, and get their direct input? Maybe you can’t implement every suggestion, but you might be surprised by their insight, and they will appreciate the effort. 

We are going out on a limb with a few guarantees here: 

  • Your employees will appreciate any step you take—no matter how small—to trust them with a measure of autonomy. 
  • The team may surprise you with suggestions that you never would have considered. 
  • As your employees gain agency, productivity and job satisfaction will increase. 
  • Your job will get a bit easier as your employees step up to do more for and by themselves. 

That last one is a winner. What manager couldn’t use less stress, more help, and happier people?  

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