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Leading Off
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As the US celebrates its independence on July 4, references to freedom are everywhere. It might be worthwhile to reflect that while freedom is a privilege to be grateful for, it also comes with checks and balances. This tension is apparent in the postpandemic workplace, where many leaders support employees’ growing demands for autonomy—the ability to control how, when, where, and, increasingly, if they work—but struggle to set parameters around it. Finding the right balance between employee autonomy and management oversight is an enduring challenge: as McKinsey’s Bryan Hancock puts it, “What drives me crazy is when I hear an executive say, ‘This is just a near-term employee power thing.’ No, it’s not.” This week, let’s explore the issue of employee autonomy—and how best to approach it.
Image of a woman working on a desk at home
Flexible work is for (almost) everyone
Not all work is remote, but more of it is than you might think. That’s one of the notable findings of McKinsey’s latest American Opportunity Survey. At first viewed as a temporary pandemic response, hybrid or remote work has become an enduring feature of the modern world across most industries, occupations, and regions—58 percent of Americans can work from home at least one day a week, 87 percent would work flexibly if offered the chance to do so, and flexible work is one of the top three motivators to find a new job. Flexible work options are available even in traditionally labeled “blue collar” jobs that might be expected to require on-site labor. As new working models evolve, leaders will need to explore which roles can and cannot be performed remotely, how much day-to-day flexibility their teams expect, strategies to integrate on- and off-site workers, and—perhaps most important—ways to measure how well their chosen models are working.
$200 billion 
That’s how much employers pay every year in healthcare costs for workplace stress, much of which results from limited job control—the amount of discretion that employees have to determine what they do and how they do it. Research shows that people in roles with more autonomy experience less physical or mental stress in the workplace even if they face greater job demands. Leaders who are challenged to define flexible work options may want to consider the negative impact of restricted job control and the positive impact of employee autonomy: workers who have more control over their jobs are healthier, more engaged, and better motivated, thereby boosting organizational effectiveness.
“For leaders to facilitate flexibility and succeed in hybrid work, enabling employee autonomy will be paramount.”
That’s one of the conclusions of a study of hybrid work published in the Harvard Business Review. According to the researchers, what employees really mean by wanting “flexibility” is wanting autonomy, or the ability to be the primary decision makers of where and when they do their work. By directly blocking this ability, mandates such as requiring a certain number of days in the office are likely doomed to fail. Instead, establish principles, not policies: for example, rather than dictating three days a week in the office, you may want to encourage employees to decide which locations best enable them to carry out certain tasks. Also, consider investing in tools and training to build the skills that employees need to work autonomously.
Image of Prashant Gandhi
Giving his teams a high degree of autonomy has paid off for Prashant Gandhi, managing director and head of digital payments at JPMorgan Chase. But it didn’t happen at the expense of structure. “While autonomy is celebrated and talked about frequently, I find that what’s often missing is a careful discussion on the management systems needed to support it,” he says in this interview with McKinsey. “Otherwise you get chaos.” Gandhi’s organization uses a shared culture and guiding principles—in this case, centered on customer satisfaction—to set up a management system that rewards independence and initiative. “If you lay out principles, give people autonomy to deliver on those principles, and provide a system of reviews that’s fair and rigorous, people get it and rally around it,” he says.
Image of a person using binoculars
Flexibility has its downsides. Employees who work remotely report burnout, alienation from colleagues, feeling invisible to management, and a host of other ill effects. For employers, the implications are different but no less dire. There is often a lingering fear that remote workers may slack off during business hours, moonlight, leak confidential information, or otherwise abuse their flexibility. Using remote monitoring tools without disclosure may raise legal risks. Ultimately, creating a culture of trust and transparency may be the best way for leaders to ensure autonomy—within necessary limits.
Lead flexibly.
— Edited by Rama Ramaswami, a senior editor in McKinsey’s Stamford, Connecticut, office
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