How to cope with less autonomy in the office

As the pandemic forced employees into remote work, one of the first, most striking changes, was an immediate increase in workers’ autonomy. Now, for perhaps the first time in their working lives, many people have become accustomed to working without a boss looking over their shoulder, or colleagues noticing their every move.

A more autonomous environment has given employees more control over large and small aspects of their jobs, from where – or whether – they sit, to how they prioritise tasks, allocate time and take breathers. For many, increased autonomy has been the greatest blessing of remote work.

“We suddenly had a lot of control, not only over where we want to work, but how we do our jobs,” says Arvind Malhotra, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “When somebody’s not always looking at you, you have choices about how things get done.”

We’ve also “gotten used to being able to intersperse life activities with job activities” – things like taking your dog for a midday walk or using a 10-minute break to unload the dishwasher. “They’re small things, but there’s a cumulative impact of all these autonomies. You’re in control of those moments. When you’re in someone else’s environment, you tend to lose that.”

As the world moves back into offices, the expectation is we’ll have to give up at least some of that new-found control – a transition that may prove jarring. But it’s not all bad news: there are ways to cope with the loss of autonomy, and things workers can do to hang on to some of the best parts of working from home.

The benefits of autonomy

Autonomy is good for us and good for our work; a fact Daniel Wheatley, reader in business and labour economics at the University of Birmingham in the UK, says experts have known for some time.

“If we have control over our lives and what we do during our lives, that gives us a greater sense of wellness, because we can decide what to do when and what works for us,” he says. “It gives us mastery over our environment, and a feeling like we’re not subject to others; we’re the decision-maker. If you read the psychology literature, these things are fulfilling some of our core needs as human beings.”

Psychologists consider autonomy to be a basic human need; people want to be in charge of their own lives. And at work, adds Wheatley, “having a greater degree of discretion over what we do will have a number of positive effects”.

After studying data from 20,000 UK employees, Wheatley and his research team found that those who reported higher levels of autonomy in their work or workplace culture were happier with their jobs.

“[The autonomy] might be over how you do your job, what task you do first, how you go about completing a task… but could also be over the timing of work, when you start and finish or take breaks. It could also be over where you work – at home, a coffee shop, the office,” says Wheatley. “Having autonomy over these things is clearly associated, with statistical evidence to support this, with greater degrees of job satisfaction.”

Another recent study showed autonomy also has a positive effect on efficiency and output at work. Researchers at Claremont Graduate University and the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies in Claremont, California, found that autonomy “can significantly impact individual and group productivity”.

Wheatley says those findings make perfect sense. “People feel like they can achieve more in a working day when they have control over their schedule and how they go about their job. Something silly, like taking a break and walking the dog when it’s convenient, can give someone more control over their whole day. Tiny things like that cumulatively have a big impact on people’s lives and, in turn, their work.”

No need to relinquish all control

Malhotra says a return to the office will naturally include a return to some of the more traditional aspects of work: namely, more supervision and less autonomy. But there may be small ways to maintain control. “The question is, what can you keep – and what can you demand in addition?” he says.

Wheatley expects that a return to the office will, in many cases, be proceeded by negotiations between workers and employees, with the former potentially seeking to make some of the changes of the last 18 months more permanent – including by moving to a hybrid model. How this works will differ depending on jobs and industries, he says, but a hybrid model allows employees to continue enjoying the autonomy of remote work, even if they have to give it up on the days when they’re in the office.

Malhotra suggests that there may be other ways to secure increased autonomy at work, too. “I think if you give up location and time autonomy, and you come into the office, you need to talk to your supervisor and bargain for flexibility on what you want to work on,” he says. “If you come in, and do your job the way you’re told it needs to be done, maybe there’s also some more creative, innovative work where you can have more autonomy.”

It’s also possible to maintain control, adds Malhotra, at the “micro-task level”, even if most everything else about the office has reverted to the way it was pre-remote work. “This is what we did when we were at home,” he says. “We blocked out certain times to do what we needed to do, and gave ourselves space and time to think. I think practicing that habit has to come back to the office with us. There are autonomies you can take back in your nine-to-five.”

That means if a worker has some control over their schedule, they can avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings, or deliberately block out time when they can’t be booked for a sit-down or call. “When do you need a break? Thinking time? Time to work with other people? Things we tacitly did while we were at home to design the schedule that worked for us need to be worked in as we go back to working in-person,” says Malhotra.

Ultimately, returning to the office will likely mean surrendering at least some autonomy. That’s unavoidable, says Wheatley. But there’s never been a better time to negotiate, or reshape your job in a way that works for you. Many people have shown that they can work productively in a remote, autonomous environment. And this recent success gives workers who want to set their own schedule and balance their workload a firm leg to stand on. Some managers may want to grab the reins back securely, but others may be more flexible, understanding that in many cases, what works best for employees also benefits the company.

Simply put: you may not have as much total autonomy over your job, but you can still stay, at least to some extent, in the driver’s seat. “I think there are a number of techniques and ways to manage,” Wheatley says, “even when you don’t have total control over your environment.”

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