In recent years, neuroscience has underlined the multidimensional effect of powerlessness on employees. Feeling disempowered can result in a lack of well-being, thwart motivation and even damage cognition. A move towards a more autonomous and empowered work culture may help employees avoid the consequences of powerlessness. Employees who feel they can act with autonomy in their day-to-day work environment tend to have stronger job performance, higher job satisfaction and greater commitment to the organisation. Nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work. This shows the importance of autonomy in attracting and retaining talent and should act as a wake-up call for organisations.
Fundamental to autonomy is an employee’s need to have choices and be in control of what they are doing. Companies’ failure to provide this may result in workers’ ‘learned helplessness’, a state in which employees stop taking the initiative in the belief that they do not really have control over their circumstances. Though employers understand the importance of autonomy, they are slow to act on it. Organisations in the Middle East and Africa are the least likely to let their people have a say in how they work.
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To understand how prepared companies are to nurture their workforce for the future, we sought to identify the key organisational capabilities they will need to succeed. Building on PwC research and working in collaboration with Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, we identified 45 key organisational capabilities. We then conducted a global survey of more than 1,200 business and HR leaders from 79 countries to gauge how important those capabilities are to organisations around the world. We also sought to learn whether organisations are taking action today to get ready – and which capabilities are most at risk owing to a lack of action. The full results are published in Preparing for tomorrow’s workforce, today.
Corporations need to put autonomy into practice with clear expectations and measurable objectives and goals. Gaming software company Valve gives employees moveable desks and encourages them to wheel over and join projects that seem interesting, but if they choose to do so, it also makes them accountable for the results. Employees are given clear expectations when they join a new project team, and complete 360-degree evaluations when projects end, ensuring that individual contributions can be measured.
A company has to create transparency so that people have the information they need in order to make the right decisions when working autonomously. A clear understanding of organisational strategy and well-communicated performance indicators help workers understand how they fit in and where they should focus their efforts. Once a week, Google lets employees ask questions directly of the company’s top leaders about any number of company issues. People then have the autonomy to share their opinions and raise ideas. In our 21st CEO Survey, 59% of CEOs said they were creating transparency in the people strategy, and 61% said they were creating transparency in employees’ contribution to the overall business results.
Trusting relationships are key to empowerment. Underpinning the notion of trust is the assumption that people are trustworthy until evidence emerges to the contrary. This stands in contrast to many conventional work practices built on the assumption that people need supervision to behave appropriately. A move towards an adult-to-adult trusting environment that allows people choice and freedom by default can enable an empowering and autonomous culture in corporations.
Streaming service Spotify has more than 2,000 employees, all grouped into agile teams, called squads, that are self-organising, cross-functional and colocated. There is no single appointed leader of a squad; any such leadership role is emergent and informal. The key mantra is that “alignment enables autonomy – the greater the alignment, the more autonomy you can grant.” That’s why the company spends so much time aligning on objectives and goals before launching into work. The leadership model at Spotify reinforces this alignment. A leader’s job is to figure out the right problem and communicate it, so that squads can collaborate to find the best solution.
Joint Global Leader, People and Organisation, Partner, PwC United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 77 3987 4275
Joint Global Leader, People and Organisation, Principal, PwC United States
Tel: +1 (917) 863 9369
Director, Workforce of the Future research programme, PwC United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 77 1016 9938
Partner, People & Change, PwC Singapore