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  • Writer's pictureJudy Gavan

We have heard a lot about trust and empowerment; now is the time to ‘walk the talk’!

As organisations consider when people can return to the office and how they will operate in the post-Covid future they have a perfect opportunity to increase choice and flexibility for their employees. It is one that should not be missed.

For well over 50 years research has consistently shown that choice and autonomy are linked to high levels of motivation. Having a sense of control over our own lives has powerful benefits for our mental wellbeing, energy, and engagement with all facets of our lives. Match this with a purpose we can buy into, and space to learn and grow, and we create conditions within which people will reach their potential and maximise their contribution.

A recent survey in one client organisation backs this up. People were asked to comment in free text form on which aspects of their remote working experience they would like to retain when things return to normal. The one word that came out a massive ten times more than any other was ‘flexibility’.

Pre-Covid, despite the proven benefits of maximising autonomy, many organisations had continued to straight-jacket their employees with rigid rules about where, when and how they work. The pandemic has proven once and for all that, for most this is simply not necessary. As a general rule, people are intrinsically motivated to do a good job and are best placed to work out how they can achieve their objectives within the context of their own varied lives. Given increased flexibility, the positive impact on individual wellbeing and engagement pays dividends for performance and productivity. Leaders can now offer this, safe in the knowledge that the vast majority will use it wisely. It is a true win:win for both employer and employee.

In some cases, there will be valid business reasons why full autonomy can’t be given and that’s fine. But let the starting point be to give as much flexibility as possible and let parameters be set by guiding principles and values where practicable, rather than through rigid rules. Most people are capable of understanding that their choices will have to take account of the needs of the business and their team and will recognise that sometimes they may need to compromise.

If there are some that exhibit an attitude of unreasonable entitlement rather than co-operative responsibility this is likely to manifest in objectives not being met and should be managed as an individual performance issue. Putting unnecessary constraints on the many in response to the recalcitrance of a few is likely to sacrifice the energised engagement and discretionary effort of the majority in exchange for begrudging compliance and minimum effort from all. Some will simply vote with their feet.

Treating people as trusted and respected adults breeds a culture of ownership and responsibility. Without this, organisations are unlikely to be able to recruit and develop the innovative, collaborative, and confident decision makers they will need if they are to have the agility and resilience to thrive in the volatile, complex digital age.

For senior leaders bearing ultimate accountability for results it can feel scary to relinquish some control, but the rewards of a trust-based culture are significant and may actually be a prerequisite for survival.

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