Fostering Autonomy

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Updated September 6, 2022

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Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.Daniel Pink, bestselling author, Drive*

Successful remote teams enable individuals to be self-directed and have a certain amount of autonomy or control over what they do and how they accomplish their assigned or chosen tasks. In order to foster autonomy, teams need to be structured so that each person can work independently, while still contributing to the collective goal. Autonomy is not just a psychological structure, but should best penetrate into logistics, including employees having agency to build their own schedules—the ability to swap calendar tetris for some deep work. Companies and managers can do a number of things to help these employees thrive:

  • Establish your values. When values are documented in the company handbook and permeate the communication architecture, employees are empowered to make decisions on a daily basis that are aligned with these values, and can be trusted without constant managerial oversight.

  • Set goals and KPIs. It’s helpful to make clear what is expected of each team and employee, but not necessarily how an individual needs to get there. Goals and KPIs might be identified each period (monthly, quarterly, yearly) and layer up through the organization. Team goals can also be documented and made accessible by everyone, including other teams.

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities. In a company that fosters healthy autonomy, each individual on the team should be able to articulate the “why” behind what they do, with a clear understanding of how their actions drive impact and integrate with the rest of the company. If roles and responsibilities are made transparent on a public org chart, employees are further empowered to reach out laterally for help or answers. Once individuals have the information needed to succeed, they’ll be able to effectively operate without rigid rules.

  • Provide context. Employees need as much context as possible to make decisions on their own. This is maximized when people know exactly what you expect of them (deadlines, goals, et cetera); there is no need for anyone to be making assumptions. In addition to the company creating a robust documentation system, everyone can be directed to make sure they are asking questions, as well as both receiving and providing enough information when communicating asynchronously.

  • Reward impact. Working in an office can train you to operate in ways that are hard to shake. One of those is the tendency to tie your impact to the hours that you spend in the office, regardless of your net output throughout the day. Successful remote teams recognize that this approach is not optimal, and reward outcomes and associated impact instead. Rewards within an organization (bonuses, promotions, public recognition) can be aligned with the behavior that the company is trying to shape. Reward a publications team, for example, for the amount of additional traffic they’re driving instead of the sheer number of articles they’re producing.

Building Trust

If you feel trusted, you feel more responsible, and if you are responsible, you earn more trust. It’s simple.Nuno Baldaia, software engineer, Doist*

Trust is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. It’s also one of the most important aspects of successful, high-performing teams. In a Harvard study of trust on professional teams, they found that high-trust teams report:

  • 74% less stress

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