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Autonomy is the absolute key to getting “the new world of work” right

Working together, physically, in person, is the way we’ve always done it. That is, until many of us were suddenly sent home — at least those of us who could work remotely.

Now, after more than a year of working from home, restrictions are easing, employees are getting vaccinated, and some leaders are ready to get everyone back in the office. “Getting back to normal” means we all go back to working in the same place, right?

Actually, work hasn’t been “normal” for more than a year, and making everyone return to the office could be like making the toothpaste return to the tube. Many leaders remain worried about employee productivity, while many employees have thrived with the increased autonomy of working remotely. They don’t want to give that up. The business press warns of “The Great Resignation” as employees will seek the flexibility that their employers may take away.

And now that the pandemic may be beginning to abate in the U.S., many organizations won’t be returning  to working 100% on site. Many workplaces will be hybrid, meaning some employees will work 100% of the time at the office, some will work 100% of the time remotely, and others will have some combination of remote and on-site work. And some employees’ schedules will themselves be hybrid, working some days remotely and others at the office. 

The Power of Autonomy

Some leaders can’t imagine that a team could possibly be productive when they’re not co-located. 

But those leaders really don’t need to worry. Teams haven’t been co-located for over a year, and data shows that productivity has remained stable, and sometimes increased, when knowledge workers worked separately. 

So what’s the secret sauce that, counterintuitively, makes employees so productive when they’re working apart from one another? Employee autonomy.

Autonomy is a key driver of human behavior, and research shows that even a little can go a long way. When employees at one company were given the opportunity to choose how to decorate their workspaces, their productivity increased up to 25%. 

Choosing a decoration for work and choosing a location to work are so not different. In both cases, giving employees a little bit of autonomy increases productivity. And sure enough, a randomized, controlled pre-pandemic study illustrated that a hybrid workplace can increase productivity when workers have the power to choose where they want to work.

In the study, leaders of CTrip, a NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency with 16,000 employees, worked with a team from Stanford University and designed a 9-month, randomized, controlled trial with call-center employees who volunteered to work a hybrid schedule. The productivity of call-center workers could easily be quantified. Faced with rising real estate costs, CTrip wanted to see whether a hybrid workplace would save money and maintain productivity.

In the study, the volunteers were randomly assigned to two groups. One group worked from the office as usual, five days a week. The other group worked from a hybrid schedule: from home four days a week, at the office one day a week.

The team from Stanford had full access to the findings.

As expected, employees who worked at the office continued to be productive. Researchers were certain that productivity would decrease among those working a hybrid schedule, but they were curious to know whether the loss in productivity would overshadow any real estate savings. 

Researchers were surprised to see that productivity among employees with a hybrid schedule actually increased by 13% and attrition decreased by 50%.

There may be some challenges to address to get the most out of any hybrid arrangement The CTrip study did find that hybrid workers had a lower rate of promotion — a curious finding given that they were outperforming their office-based colleagues. The researchers surmised that home workers’ lower rate of promotion may have been due to an “out of sight, out of mind” penalty: Since managers weren’t seeing those employees in person on a daily basis, they may have unconsciously discounted their value when it was time to select who got promoted. The phenomenon is known as distance bias, and work by the NeuroLeadership has shown that it can be successfully mitigated by following science-based strategies.

But when CTrip saw that hybrid workers’ productivity increased 13%, they offered all call center employees the choice to work a hybrid schedule or at the office full time. More than 50% of the employees in the original study chose to change their primary work locations from the office to home, or from home to the office. 

Average productivity across all call center workers rose 22%.

CTrip didn’t set out to prove the power of autonomy, but the data is undeniable.

CTrip was able to make their decision to grant employees autonomy with data from a carefully designed, scientifically rigorous study back in 2012. In 2020, leaders didn’t have the luxury of a thoughtfully-researched way forward. They had to just make the decision to send many of their people home and hope for the best.

It worked out much better than they might have imagined. 

Many observational studies and surveys found similar gains in productivity organizations in the U.S. The unexpected increase in the productivity of dispersed workforces had a man-bites-dog quality that earned it coverage in the lay press, science press, business press, and in human-resources-focused blogs.

What’s Next?

Find out what your employees want, and determine what’s suitable for the work they do. Many studies, including Microsoft’s Work Trends Index, a survey of 30,000 employees in 31 countries,  found that post-pandemic, roughly a third of workers would like to work 100% in the office, a third would like to work 100% remotely, and a third would like some combination of the two. In other words, any choice your organization makes will be less than ideal for the majority of your employees.

Whatever you decide, know that increasing employee autonomy, even a little, is likely to increase their productivity.

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