Is 9-5 a thing of the past? What it means to have real work autonomy

As you read this, you’re probably at home, in sweats, biding your time until the pandemic is over and you can resume to your previous life of daily commutes to and from HQ. 

Wait, is that actually true? Will post-pandemic life be a return to our same old routines? Judging by what CEOs and employees are saying, that’s highly unlikely. Now that we’ve all practiced working remotely for months, the proverbial cat’s out of the bag. Employees don’t want to return to the past and neither do most CEOs. 

Is this the end of the 9-to-5?

The future is already here

In a recent survey, 86% of CEOs said they anticipate their employees will work remotely between one and four days a week in the future. Yet another survey discovered that 69% of CEOs plan on downsizing office space. So, unless circumstances change dramatically (it’s still 2020, so anything’s possible!) we are looking at a future in which fewer of us will return to the 5-day-a-week, 9-to-5 grind.

Of course, there’s always a catch, which in this case is the very nature of remote work. Working from home is not the same as working in the office but in a different location. Home is a distraction-rich environment. It’s home, after all. This realization (which everyone, including the C-Suite, has experienced first-hand during the pandemic) has many workplace experts talking less about working from home (WFH) and more about working from anywhere (WFA). In other words, once employees are released from having to come into the office, they will need the freedom to find the best work environment for themselves, whether that’s home, HQ, a coworking space or a coffee shop.

Is this a recipe for anarchy?

This is the point where more hidebound executives might say, “whoa, we can’t simply let employees do whatever they want!” To be sure, not all companies are going to be comfortable giving employees complete freedom in where and how they work. Then again, remember that prior to COVID, plenty of managers were utterly opposed to letting employees work from home. 

94% of companies report steady or higher productivity during the pandemic

What makes WFA sticky

There are a few reasons to think beyond WFH and seriously consider WFA, including:

  • It doesn’t hurt and might even help productivity. In a recent study of 800 employers, 94% reported that productivity held steady or increased during the pandemic.
  • Having had a taste of freedom, employees want more workplace flexibility going forward.
  • Workplace flexibility is now a competitive advantage for companies that offer it.
  • Companies can save a lot of money by leasing smaller offices.

What workplace autonomy isn’t

So, now that we’ve established that greater workplace autonomy is increasingly likely, let’s talk about what it would probably look like.

To address managers’ worst fears, work autonomy doesn’t mean total chaos. We won’t see employees running wild due to lack of supervision. And to address employees’ worst fears, work autonomy doesn’t mean working in complete isolation.

86% of CEOs expect their employees will work remotely

What workplace autonomy really is

Work autonomy means is that people closer to the work are the ones who make choices about when, where and how that work gets done. Think of it as a shift from central planning to more distributed, just-in-time decision making about work.

At the team level, managers get to decide how best to deploy the team. If a manager believes her team will perform best working remotely, why second guess her? She might also choose to bring the team together once a week at HQ. Or she might rent a private office for a week and have the team come in for a big planning session. These are all valid decisions by a manager who’s best able to respond to the ever-changing demands of the work. 

At the individual level, it means that when it’s not critical to be in a specific workspace, employees get to choose where and how to meet their work goals. For some, that will still be the company office. But for many people, the right recipe will be a mix of workplaces, including HQ, home and so-called 3rd places, like coworking spaces, libraries and coffee shops.

Productivity means choosing the right workspace for the task

More freedom requires more planning

Counterintuitively, freedom is only possible when the right structures have been put in place. Work autonomy can only be successful if management has set a good foundation, which includes:

  • A clear mission and purpose
  • A shared and explicit set of priorities
  • Moral and tangible support from management
  • Coaching and guidance from line managers
  • A shared approach to planning, prioritizing and evaluating work (e.g., KPIs, OKRs, EOS)
  • Having the right technology to work efficiently, collaboratively and securely as a team

Notice something? None of these things have anything to do with the physical location where work is done. But every one of them are fundamental to business success. If your company’s management team hasn’t done this work, then workplace autonomy may not be your biggest problem.

As we’ve been discovering during the pandemic, working remotely can have its drawbacks. But employees have proven that they are largely trustworthy and capable of producing results when given the freedom to make good choices.

Topics: future of work, workplace freedom, Remote Work

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