An autonomous worker is an incredible asset. They are happier, more productive, loyal, more creative, and they experience greater wellbeing. Autonomous workers are the types of employees you want in your business. Yet, true workplace autonomy is surprisingly uncommon.
When my co-founder Noam and I started CGL
, we wanted to create a workplace with unparalleled autonomy for our attorneys. In the legal industry, attorney autonomy is almost unheard of. This is because law firm revenue is (usually) directly related to how many hours its attorneys work.
The equation for law firm revenue is simple: long hours in a chair x an attorney’s hourly rate = $$$.
Unfortunately, this equation also results in exceptionally high rates of depression and burnout, and poor attorney wellbeing. Practicing attorneys are often disengaged, unmotivated, stressed, sick, and floundering, the very opposite of the crisp, sharp professionals portrayed pulling all-nighters in Suits and Boston Legal.
Our experience is in law, but we’d expect the same maladies to be seen in any industry where workers are expected to work hard without control over their workload. Long hours are not a prerequisite to burnout, though they certainly don’t help.
The point here is: regardless of your industry or workforce size, autonomy is the antidote to an unmotivated workforce. It is the key to balance, productivity, and employee retention. And it should be encouraged and vigorously protected.
Regardless of your industry or workforce size, autonomy is the antidote to an unmotivated workforce. It is the key to balance, productivity, and employee retention. And it should be encouraged and vigorously protected.
But developing an autonomous workforce isn’t as simple as telling employees to work when they want to. It requires careful consideration of your business operations and client needs, alongside employee training, carefully worded policies, and constant communication.
We’ve encountered many stumbling blocks in developing an autonomous culture at our firm, but the benefits we’re uncovering are worth it. And we’d love to share with you what we’ve learned while building and training our team so they don’t need us.
First Things First, You Must Understand Autonomy
Worker autonomy doesn’t mean workers can choose whether or not to work when they have deadlines to meet. It doesn’t mean workers can cancel meetings because they feel like going for a run instead. Nor does it mean that workers can just choose to move to Florida and work from there because the weather is better.
No, worker autonomy means that workers are free to get the work they commit to done within the timeframe they agree to. How they choose to meet those expectations is (generally) up to them.
The Next Step: Deprogramming Your Workers
The first stumbling block you’re likely to face is convincing your team that you really trust them to do their job without constant check-ins or oversight. So many workers are used to running ideas, drafts, and toilet breaks past their managers. It can be disconcerting for employees to go from a workplace with micromanagement to another with relative freedom.
The key here is that it will take time for your employees to develop trust in the company’s attitude towards autonomy and flexibility. These are perks that have been falsely promised by employers for a long time, so don’t be offended by anyone who is a little skeptical about your real attitude.
You should also:
How can we expect our employees to believe we encourage real work-life balance if we don’t have it ourselves? We can’t.
The partners at CGL all set hard boundaries regarding the hours we work. All of us happily switch off our computers and notifications when we’re not working. It isn’t uncommon for us to send emails saying “I stepped away from my computer for a long weekend, here’s the plan…”. Note the email doesn’t start with ‘sorry’ since there’s nothing to apologize for.
I love it when CGL’s attorneys have passion projects, side hustles, hobbies, and outside-of-work responsibilities. Within CGL, we have yogis, an Adjunct Professor, a future farmer, full-time caregivers, and busy parents. I’m training to become a certified death doula, a passion that occupies most of my time on Fridays.
The reason I love for our team to have these other interests is that they keep them motivated. We consistently see that workers who ‘have permission’ to experience life outside of the workplace are exceptionally motivated at work. Our attorneys set realistic deadlines for client work because they understand that the trade-off of providing unrealistic schedules is losing some of that work-life balance. They want to progress at work so they have the financial resources to continue enjoying their lifestyle.
We’ve joked that encouraging worker autonomy and flexibility is inherently selfish because it allows us to get the best out of our workforce.
We consistently see that workers who ‘have permission’ to experience life outside of the workplace are exceptionally motivated at work.
Striking the right balance between necessary communication and employee autonomy can be tricky. You don’t want your workers to let you know when they’re stepping out to go for a walk or picking up kids from school, but you do need to know if they’re taking a vacation. This is where your workplace policies come into play.
Your workplace policies should very clearly set expectations about workload and communication for your employees. It should outline consequences for missed deadlines, poor performance reviews, and client dissatisfaction or complaints. The processes for gathering feedback about employee performance should be clearly documented too. And, importantly, your policies should detail the difference between your employees setting up a side hustle and them infringing on workplace intellectual property. You can curtail their ability to set up a direct competitor to your business using your workplace resources.
We strongly encourage our workers to tell us what they need from us - not the other way around. Encouraging upwards management, in our experience, leads to employees taking the reins on their workload and managing the projects themselves. If they need something from us, we’re ready to listen and happy to offer assistance and guidance if the employee needs it to grow. Outside of that, we firmly encourage our attorneys to come to us with solutions, summaries, timelines, and a list of what they need to succeed. After all, they’re in a far better position than we are to know the depths of their expertise.
Finally, I want to really stress that achieving worker autonomy is a constantly moving goalpost. We haven’t perfected it yet at CGL, I still routinely need to step in to ensure everything runs smoothly. The important thing is that we’re always learning and always striving to make our workplace a better place for us and for our team.