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The value of employee freedom

"When you are trying to “recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value.”

Ah, life under Stalin! A time when central planning committees decided everything for the employee; time to work, time to not work, place to work, what to work on, what can be used to brighten up the workspace (a picture of Joseph Stalin, maybe). Control was the cornerstone of Uncle Joe’s lean and mean workspace.

Employees wore no physical chains (unless Uncle Joe had unfriended them), rather employees were subject to the mental chains of micromanagement and rule by committee.

And how did that work out?

Great Kalashnikovs made and vast vodka drunk. Not so hot at cars or much else. Communist Russia had a reputation for poor productivity and a shoddy customer experience.

“The real damper on employee engagement is the soggy, cold blanket of centralized authority. In most companies, power cascades downwards from the CEO. Not only are employees disenfranchised from most policy decisions, they lack even the power to rebel against egocentric and tyrannical supervisors.” - Gary Hamel, management expert.

Do ‘Uncle Joe’ workplaces still linger in the modern world? Do organisations still micromanage employees, handing down vast sets of bewildering judgements, policies and procedures to workers because that is the way it has always been done? Do committees and stopwatches still determine employee hours? Do facilities committees still determine where workers sit, stand, eat and drink? And who decides what the workspace will look like? Is mean and lean still driving employees to poor productivity (and vodka in some cases)?

Thankfully no - some organisations are showing the benefits of unshackling their employees.

Some organisations have embraced flexibility of what employees can work on (think Google’s 20% self—directed projects). Some organisations have taken self-direction to a whole new level. Take the example of Valve. To quote from their handbook:

“…when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.”

“We’ve heard that other companies have people allocate a percentage of their time to self—directed projects. At Valve, that percentage is 100.”

But does such an extreme work? Okay, Valve prints money and runs a gaming competition with a prize pool of about $25 million but their Glassdoor reviews aren’t always glowing - sometimes containing accusations of hidden management hierarchies, poor communication and poor feedback.

Some organisations have embraced work time and work place flexibility, allowing employees to decide where and when to work. Sure, time and place flexibility may not be feasible in workplaces that demand physical input from employees. Yet some ‘intellectual’ property organisations still seem to be lingering in Uncle Joe’s world, limping in a twilight zone where flexibility is regarded as clocking in and out of the office between pre-determined hours. This may lead to ‘presenteeism’ or ‘the hamster is on the wheel but the wheel is not turning.’

And have you heard of written warnings for being a minute late and no thanks for the overtime? Workplaces where the employee has no autonomy in the design of their workspace? Places where employees have been dumped with a ping pong table with the expectation that they will perform for management?

Are most people working in a space designed by their organisation, with the organisation expecting to be the winner? Or are most people working in an organisation of the people, by the people, for the people?

Craig Knight and S. Alexander Haslam, while at the University of Exeter, found that compared to lean working spaces, when people had space decorated with plants and pictures (an enriched space) they felt a greater sense of oneness with the organisation and reported enhanced well-being. They also found that people worked faster with no loss in accuracy.

Then, when people were given the autonomy to decorate their own working space (using plants and pictures), further improvements were recorded in their perceptions of their working conditions. Tasks were also completed more quickly but without any increase in errors. Importantly, with the empowered sample, people were given the autonomy to choose to work in a lean or very enriched space, or any blend of the two.

When employees identify with a business (or have a sense of oneness with its purpose, values, brand, customers etc) they tend to perform better, are likely to be more satisfied with their job, be good citizens of the business (help colleagues and give constructive ideas), and they are less likely to quit.

Pierre Nanterme, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Accenture said “all private sector pioneers are operating with the knowledge that their own market survival and expansion depends on protecting the long-term interests of their customers and their own staff.” Sure, he was talking about pioneering organisations and the rise of AI but his words ring broadly true.

So, in the interests of better business consider finding the chains that bind employees, consider breaking those shackles, setting employees free to innovate and lead and have a vastly improved employee experience.

Don’t fish for your employees – give them the freedom to fish for themselves.


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Schuh, S. C., Van Quaquebeke, N., Göritz, A. S., Xin, K. R., De Cremer, D., & Van Dick, R. (2016). Mixed feelings, mixed blessing? How ambivalence in organizational identification relates to employees’ regulatory focus and citizenship behaviors. human relations, 69(12), 2224-2249.

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#employeeexperience #employeeengagement #workplace #productivity #autonomy #purpose #values