By Valerie Schlitt

The lifeblood of any business is the people it employs. They have an enormous impact on its ability to succeed. 

If you want your business to thrive, you need to be a company that both attracts and retains great talent. Beyond even that, you need employees that are motivated to work towards the shared vision and goals of your business. This is true for a small business with a staff of five or a big corporation with a staff of 80,000, and anywhere in between.

Most businesses understand that in order to attract the best employees, they have to offer a competitive salary, good health insurance, a 401(k) plan, and paid time off. Many companies try to outshine their competitors and attract the best of the best by offering higher salaries or better health insurance and other benefits. But, not every business can afford to do this.

The good news is there’s something every company can offer that not only has an enormous impact on job satisfaction, but is also completely free:


Autonomy:  the right or condition of self-government; freedom from external control or influence; independence.

There are a number of studies that illustrate just how important autonomy is to overall job satisfaction. One of the most famous is the Whitehall II study conducted by Sir Michael Marmot. Through his 40-year study of government workers in Great Britain, he discovered that employees with the lowest rated job autonomy consistently had the poorest well-being and highest mortality rates.

But none of us really need studies to prove how valuable autonomy is. We all carry within us the intrinsic need to be masters of our own lives – to be free, to be independent. Since we spend so much of our time at work, it stands to follow that a work environment that supports these needs will be much more appealing than one that doesn’t.

Autonomy vs. Micromanagement

Sometimes it helps to look at a trait’s opposite to fully understand its importance. The opposite of autonomy in the workplace is being micromanaged, where every move you make is dictated and scrutinized. Just the thought of that type of work environment is enough to make most of us cringe. Micromanaging is a sure-fire way to lose valuable talent.

In fact, given the choice between Company A that offers the best salary but with a micromanaging work culture, and Company B that offers a lower salary but with an autonomous work culture, most (if not all) people would choose Company B, as long as its salary was equal to industry standards.

How to Bring Autonomy to Your Business

So, the question remains, how do you incorporate autonomy into your business?

There are three main components of autonomy in the workplace. They are:

  1. Time/schedule management
  2. Work management
  3. Having a voice

In order to successfully incorporate autonomy into your business, you need to have all three components. But, they don’t necessarily need to all be equal. It really depends on your business model and what works best for your company. That being said, the more perceived autonomy an employee has, the more satisfied they will be working for you.

1. Time/Schedule Management

The ability to determine and set your own schedule is a large part of feeling autonomous. In my business, this is the type of autonomy we rely most heavily on because it both attracts the right type of employees and fits perfectly in our business model. Some examples are:

  • Allowing employees to work from home sometimes.
  • Allowing flexibility in work start and end times. (This is especially helpful for working moms and dads.)
  • Allowing flexibility in work week scheduling. For instance, you could allow employees to work longer hours in the front of the week so they can have half-day Fridays, or Fridays off completely, if they so desire.

2. Work Management

This type of autonomy is about feeling in control of the work you do – both how you do it and what exactly you do. This is a trickier aspect of autonomy in the workplace and may require some trial and error in order to incorporate it into your business in a healthy way.

Google has become famous for a certain type of work management autonomy they’ve incorporated wherein they allow their employees to work on whatever they want, with no limitations, for 20% of their time. Many of Google’s greatest innovations and advancements have resulted from this 20%.

This extreme type of work management autonomy is not going to work in all businesses, certainly not in mine. Google is a unique endeavor that attracts extremely motivated self-starters and out of the box thinkers. However, there are many other ways to incorporate it on a smaller and more realistic scale, such as:

  • Focusing on outcomes rather than processes. Allow your employees to determine how they will achieve particular goals/results.
  • Giving employees the opportunity to help determine a course of action to achieve an overarching goal. For instance, if you want to double your profits in a certain sector of your business, hold meetings with employees to come up with the best courses of action to take to achieve that goal.
  • Allowing for flexibility within work management. For instance, an employee must complete tasks A, B & C by the end of the week. You allow that person to decide when and how they will accomplish those tasks.
  • Team autonomy, which is allowing teams of people to self-govern without too much oversight from management.

The thing to remember about work management autonomy is that, unlike time/schedule autonomy, it is an element of autonomy that can be tied to performance. I recommend giving a certain amount of work autonomy to every employee at the outset with the provision that it can be taken away if the employee misuses it, as well as the reward that the employee will be offered more of it if they meet or exceed expectations.

3. Having a Voice

If you want employees that are engaged and intrinsically motivated towards actualizing the vision of your company, they need to feel more than just a part of it. They need to feel like they can take some ownership of it, too.

If you seek out the advice of your employees to help achieve goals, if you seek out their advice, even, in determining goals, and if you have a company culture in which employees feel more than comfortable to offer up both ideas and criticisms, then you have a business where employees feel they have a voice. Plus, you’ll have the input of smart and intelligent people who will help you make better decisions for your business. 

Many people “blame” Millennials for the need for autonomy in the workplace but in fact, as the Whitehall II study illustrates, that need was always there. The difference, now, is that employees feel more entitled to it. But, I would posit that they were always entitled, just as we have always been entitled to freedom and independence in our lives outside of work. I am glad that the business culture is finally catching up.

Like many of you, I wasn’t always a business owner. I worked for many years in the corporate world and I experienced both autonomy and micromanagement. I was much happier when I could feel autonomous in my work and I want the people working for me to be happy, too. Not only is it the right thing to do, it also helps my business tremendously. Happy people do better work. Happy people get sick less and are more reliable. Happy people stay with you. Plus, happy people are much more fun to be around.