Posted: Fri 18th Aug 2023
As the world of work continues to evolve, so too do our expectations of what it means to be productive.
In the past, the standard measure of productivity was the number of hours an employee spent at their desk. I was the master of this. My KPIs were based on the number of hours spent that would determine the output generated.
But, as I started to work in more 'people-first' companies I began to learn more about what motivates people to do their best work, and I began to focus on the new paradigm: output over hours.
The idea behind this approach is simple: When employees are given the freedom to work in a way that suits them best, they are more engaged, motivated and productive.
This is backed by a growing body of research, which shows that autonomy is one of the key drivers of employee satisfaction and performance. I know that this is uncomfortable for many leaders and business owners, but the data is the data!
In this blog, I'll explore the different schools of thought on the subject, share some tactics and strategies for implementing an autonomy-driven approach, and highlight some of the most impactful people who have championed this way of working.
The case against autonomy: Why some still believe in the traditional model
To understand why some people are still resistant to the idea of output over hours, we first need to look at the traditional model of work.
For decades, the standard measure of productivity has been the number of hours an employee spends at their desk. I could even suggest that this model has been in existence since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Some might argue even before then.
This model has been reinforced by a culture of presenteeism, where being seen to work long hours is often seen as a sign of dedication and commitment.
When I worked in New York City in the mid-90s, I felt like it was a badge of honour for me to be seen to be in the office first and leave last. I've never shied away from working long hours. It's in my DNA from working in the hospitality industry when I left school.
During the pandemic, I was running a large international territory for a global software company. I'd be at my desk from dawn to dusk and there were many days when I wouldn't even leave my seat.
But this model has its drawbacks. For one thing, it doesn't take into account the fact that people have different rhythms and working styles. Some people are more productive in the morning, while others are night owls. Some people work best in short bursts, while others prefer longer periods of uninterrupted focus.
At the same time, the traditional model can also be demotivating for employees. When people feel like they're being judged solely on the number of hours they put in, it can be easy for them to believe their work isn't valued on its own merits.
For most of my early to mid-career, I was very guilty of judging people in this way. This can lead to disengagement and burnout, both of which are major contributors to poor performance.
However, more importantly, it led to a culture of managing by fear, a lack of trust and transparency and overall just not being human. And, for that, I apologise.
The case for autonomy: Why output should take precedence over hours
So if the traditional model of work isn't working, what's the alternative? The answer is autonomy.
When employees are given the freedom to work in a way that suits them best, they are more engaged, motivated and productive. This is because autonomy allows people to take ownership of their work and feel a sense of pride in what they do.
This idea is supported by a growing body of research. For example, a study by Gallup found that employees who had higher levels of autonomy reported higher levels of job satisfaction, engagement and wellbeing.
Similarly, research by Harvard Business Review found that organisations that gave employees more autonomy saw a 4.4% increase in productivity. Just do the maths!
Strategies for implementing an autonomy-driven approach
So how do you go about implementing an autonomy-driven approach in your organisation? Here are a few tactics and strategies to consider:
Get behind the strategy from the very top of the organisation. Don't make this an objectives and key results (OKR) for the year. You need to set long-term goals for this shift.
Have a clear consideration for which business function will own the transformation. The gain in productivity can be considerable. The opportunities for changing and improving processes could be uncomfortable for certain leaders. Make sure your transformation group is from a very diverse group of employees.
Encourage your employees to work in a way that suits them best. This could mean allowing them to work from home, giving them flexible hours, or letting them choose their projects.
Provide your employees with the tools and resources they need to be successful. This could include training, access to technology, or support from colleagues. Create 'ambassadors' to encourage a culture of support and mentoring.
Foster a culture of trust and transparency. When employees feel like they can be honest about their challenges and successes, it can help build a sense of camaraderie and encourage collaboration.
Resist the urge, at all costs, to revert back to type.
Reward and incentivise autonomous performance. If you're a sceptic, this is a very good way to test the theory.
Who are the impactful people championing the autonomy-driven approach?
Finally, let's take a look at some of the most impactful people who have championed the autonomy-driven approach:
1. Daniel Pink
Author of the bestselling book Drive, which explores the science of motivation and argues that autonomy is one of the key drivers of engagement and performance.
2. Richard Branson
Founder of the Virgin Group, which has a reputation for giving employees a high degree of autonomy and encouraging them to take risks and be creative.
3. Tony Hsieh
Former CEO of Zappos, who famously implemented a 'holacracy' model that gave employees a high degree of autonomy and encouraged them to take ownership of their work.
Many business leaders could be added to the very small list above.
Oh, to be starting my career all over again! I would've been all about output versus hours. I would've been able to spend more time with my family and friends, lived a healthier and happier life, and most importantly of all, been recognised as a compassionate leader.
As we've seen, the idea of output over hours is not just a buzzword – it's a proven way of working that can lead to higher levels of engagement, motivation and productivity.
By giving employees the freedom to work in a way that suits them best, you can create a culture of trust and transparency that fosters collaboration and innovation. So if you're still tied to the traditional model of work, it might be time to start rethinking your approach.