Balance Autonomy and Structure in Remote Employment

Employees want full autonomy to choose where and when they work. Data from the new Jabra Hybrid Ways of Working 2022 Global Report finds that this increased autonomy contributes positively to an employee’s work experience, boosting factors such as motivation, productivity, trust, and mental well-being. However, one major concern that leaders have expressed is the…

Employees desire full autonomy in choosing where and when to work. Data from the new Jabra Hybrid Ways of Working 2022 Global Report finds that this increased autonomy contributes positively to an employee’s work experience, boosting factors such as motivation, productivity, trust, and mental well-being. Leaders have voiced concern about their inability to make decisions about future space and technology requirements if they aren’t sure where or when employees will work. Jabra’s data shows that employees want to feel more stable after two years of uncertainty. These authors offer a guideline for leaders on how to encourage greater employee autonomy, while still meeting the tangible needs of the company.

As major companies like Google and Apple have begun mandating a return of all employees to the office for a certain number of days per week, the debate about flexibility and autonomy continues to develop. Organizations are taking a more firm position on where their employees should work. This spotlight continues to shine on the question of how much control employees should have over their work arrangements. This includes whether employees should have the ability to choose where and when they work or whether the organization should do that for them.

There have been diverging opinions on the best way for leaders to approach the post-pandemic back-to-office debate. The result has been headlines that range from “Let employees choose where, when, and how they work ” to “Don’t let employees pick their WFH days .”. In this broad debate, advocates of leadership control over employee work arrangements are frequently seen as being insensitive to employees’ needs. Advocates for employee total control over their work arrangements can be seen as insensitive to the company’s needs. Both of these arguments are often wrong. When done correctly, giving employees the freedom to choose when and where they work can improve the employee experience as well as give leaders the structure they need to make strategic decisions.

We present a roadmap that shows how leaders can use technology and office spaces to empower their employees to create structure in work arrangements.

Employees want to choose where and when they work

The new Jabra Hybrid Ways of Working 2022 Global Report shows that employees with full autonomy to choose where and when they work unanimously report a better work experience than those with limited or low autonomy. You can see below how we have defined these groups:

  • High autonomy: “I have full autonomy to choose where and when I work, with the ability to come into the office if I want.
  • Limited autonomy: “I’m required to work remotely full time and can choose to work anywhere but the office”;
    “There is a minimum number of days required in the office, but I can choose which days to come in.”
  • Low autonomy: “I’m required to work in-office full time”; “I work from home and the office, but the days are chosen for me (e.g., required in office on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from home on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays).”

In the study, we define work experience as an aggregate of eight different metrics: sense of belonging, motivation, productivity, trust in team, trust in leaders, impact, work-life balance, and mental well-being. High-autonomy workers report high levels of belonging, motivation and productivity. They also report trust in their leaders, work-life balance, mental well-being, trust in their team, trusting in their leaders, trust in their work environment, and trust in their colleagues. In some cases, these scores are more than 20% higher than their low autonomy counterparts. It was striking that the employees’ perceptions of their impact on their organizations did not differ across these groups. Leaders and managers will have to look for other ways to increase employee impact.

Employee experience is a major focus of many leaders in today’s competition for talent. Employee empowerment can make it easier for employees to choose when and where they work.

Flexible location choice will continue to grow as a priority

The shifts of the past two years have given employees good reason to reprioritize their lives to focus more on their health and well-being. So much so, in fact, that our research last year found that the majority of employees had come to value flexibility more than salary and other benefits. They have the freedom to seek out new, better ways to do their jobs anywhere they want and at their own pace.

Employees believe these new and better ways to work are here to stay. In fact, our latest data shows that 64% of Gen Z and 63% of Millennials consider their office to be their laptop, headset, and wherever they can get a strong internet connection, compared to only 48% of Gen X and 43% of Baby Boomers. It is clear that the future workplace will be dominated by these younger generations.

Leaders are concerned about letting employees choose location

Despite the significant motivational, productivity, trust and well-being benefits associated with increasing employee autonomy, some business leaders might find giving up all decision-making authority regarding location to be troubling. After all, it is the leaders of the organization who make the decisions about how to manage its physical infrastructure. CBRE, a global leader in commercial real estate, released a report in 2021 indicating that “corporate real estate professionals are being tasked with developing more agile strategies in the face of portfolios that are bound by contractual obligations, depreciation schedules, and cultural norms.”

This same sentiment has many business leaders wondering what the future holds for their businesses in a hybrid world. Do we need to sell some of our real property? What should we do about our meeting rooms and desk arrangements? If I can’t predict the number of employees who will be in my office, how do I serve our technology needs? Leaders must have a stable and predictable view of the work habits of their employees in order to make informed decisions about workplace investments and overhead costs. They must understand the use of technology, buildings, and spaces.

Employees seek habits, structure, and predictability

We’re creatures of habit. We strive for structure and balance in all that we do. This includes work and personal life. It’s this predictability that offers us more certainty and allows us to get the most out of our lives. But just because employees have the option to choose when and where they work, it doesn’t mean they will ignore their natural human tendencies. They will still seek to establish structures and routines in their day that optimize their time.

Let’s take one example from the workplace. In our research, 69% of high-autonomy employees said that if they didn’t have a permanent, regular desk or office at work, they’d still try to sit and work in the same spot every day anyway. This is the same number for employees with low autonomy and only 2% less for those who have limited freedom to choose their work location. No matter how much autonomy you have at work, predictability wins. Knowing what your workday looks like can also be motivating. Employees will be more inclined to come to work if they know what to expect.

We found that employees prefer their home workspace to their office workspace as a result of how much time they spend in meetings. With 80% of all meetings now fully virtual or hybrid, in-office meeting spaces aren’t being utilized to the extent that they were prior to the pandemic. And with the work-from-home shift of the pandemic, 42% of employees have reconfigured their home workspaces for a virtual working world (a number that rises to 68% for those spending more than half their time in meetings). Many are more equipped to handle today’s virtual workstyles from home. Their home collaboration experience gives them more control over their day than coming to an office that’s not optimized for virtual work.

Here, leaders are in a bit of a Catch-22. On the one hand, many are hesitant to reconfigure offices without mandating that emp

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