Apr 5, 2013

Doing It Your Way

According to the dictionary on my Macbook, autonomous means "having the freedom to act independently." Synonyms include self-governing, independent, sovereign, free, self-ruling and self-determining. For most of us, those are words that we associate with positive emotions. So I think it's safe to say that we like to have autonomy in our lives. And according to Daniel Pink in his book Drive. The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it is a vital component to being motivated and successful at the workplace.

One of the reasons for this is because we seem to be born with the drive to figure things out for ourselves:
I'm convinced [...] that our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed. And I say that not because I'm a dewy-eyed idealist, but because I've been around young children and because my wife and I have three kids of our own. Have you ever seen a six-month-old or a one-year-old who's not curious and self-directed? I haven't. That's how we are out of the box. If, at age fourteen or forty-three, we're passive and inert, that's not because it's our nature. It's because something flipped our default setting. (p. 89)
But what would this kind of self-directedness actually look like at the workplace? One of the examples cited by Pink takes us to the other side of the world (note: I live in Europe :-)). Once a quarter, the Australian software company Atlassian sets aside an entire day for its engineers to work on any software problem they want. The only requirement: it has to be something that's not part of their regular job. Starting Thursday afternoon most employees work through the night so they will have some results to show the rest of the company come four p.m. Friday. Since they have to deliver something overnight, Atlassian calls them FedEx Days. According to one employee this tradition has led to some of the "coolest stuff" they have developed. Things that otherwise might not have been produced.

And it's something that doesn't just work in Australia. Pink mentions the study of 320 small businesses:  one half of which granted its workers some form of autonomy, the other half had the classical top-down management. The businesses with the autonomy model grew at four times the rate of the others! But the positive effects of being in charge of your life go even further than having success at work.
A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being. (p. 91)
A handful of CEOs and managers are figuring this out and are now giving their employees more freedom at work:
...what a few future-facing businesses are discovering is that one of these essential features is autonomy -- in particular, autonomy over four aspects of work: what people do, when they do it, how they do it, and whom they do it with. (p. 93f)
In other words task, time, technique and team. The most well-known example of a company giving its employees autonomy over their tasks is probably Google, allowing them to spend one day a week working on a side project (sound familiar?). The result of this "20 percent time"? Google News, Google Talk, Gmail and Google Translate, among other useful innovations.

When it comes to autonomy over time, the new buzz-word seems to be ROWE, which stands for a results-only work environment. Here's how Daniel Pink describes it:
In a ROWE workplace, people don't have schedules. They show up when they want. They don't have to be in the office at a certain time -- or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them. (p. 86)
Sounds good, but there's no way this would actually work in a large company in a competitive market, right? Wrong. Ever heard of Best Buy? I thought so. After their CEO agreed to give this weird idea a try, their headquarters in Minnesota now has fewer people working a regular schedule than it has those who are following the ROWE model. And last I heard, they were pretty successful too. Giving people the freedom to work when they want to seems to be essential. "Without sovereignty over our time, it's nearly impossible to have autonomy over our lives." (p. 101)

So what does it mean to give employees autonomy regarding their technique? The online shoe and apparel shop Zappos is a great example. Those who work in customer service don't have their call times monitored and don't use a script. They can handle their calls the way they want, as long as they're serving the customer well. According to Wikipedia, Zappos is now the largest online shoe store, partly due to its phenomenal customer service. As Tony Hsieh, the company's CEO puts it: "We really think of the Zappos brand as about great service, and we just happen to sell shoes."

And finally, some companies actually let their employees decide who they want to work with (team). At the organic grocery chain Whole Foods, a job candidate works on a team for a trial period of thirty days. After this, his potential teammates vote on whether he gets hired full-time or not. So if your co-workers don't like you, maybe you should consider applying for a job at Whole Foods and hope you get voted onto the team. That way you can always say: "Hey, just remember that you guys voted for me..." ;-)

All of these examples seem to make one thing clear: being able to do things your way can be awfully liberating, deeply motivating and extremely satisfying -- for yourself and everyone else involved.

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