If you want your staff to work hard, stop telling them what to do

Autonomy is a key component of employee engagement. It could turn so-called quiet quitters into people who are happy to go the extra mile for your business
Worker sitting relaxed with his laptop, clearly enjoying autonomy and engagement

Since 2005, Australian software company Atlassian has applied a singular approach to boosting innovation. Once a quarter, the firm holds a “ShipIt Day”, giving employees the autonomy to work on anything they like for 24 hours, with all other responsibilities put on hold.

People can pursue projects solo or in teams. The only condition of the exercise is that they show their colleagues what they’ve been working on. The best-received concepts are then taken forward for further development.

One ShipIt Day will often yield more ideas for new products and upgrades to existing ones than the rest of the quarter combined, according to the firm, which says that these events are fun and engaging for all participants.

The balance of employee experience and engagement

Although they’re sometimes conflated, employee experience and employee engagement are different things. Experience refers to pay, perks, benefits and working conditions. Engagement concerns how motivated employees are and the extent to which their values and goals align with those of their organisation.

Both factors are important. A firm offering a good employee experience may be better than a lower-paying competitor at retaining valued staff, say. But, if a business truly wants to innovate and grow, it must invest in engagement too. 

Rewards matter only up to a point, writes US economist Dan Pink in his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. While employers must pay their staff “enough to take the issue of money off the table”, he explains that the vital ingredients of engagement are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

In other words, people crave self-direction. They want to learn new skills and perfect them. And they want to know what they’re doing is meaningful.

Challenging the status quo 

An international survey of 5,000 workers in a range of sectors by Harvard Business Review last year found that 59% favoured greater flexibility at work over a pay rise. But flexibility is not only about the freedom to choose where and when to work. It also encompasses flexibility of thought. 

Just because a company has done something one way for years, it doesn’t mean that it must keep doing it. The best leaders invite innovative ideas that challenge the status quo, even from the most junior employees.

Rigid hierarchies, job descriptions and working hours alienate people. If you want employees to truly care about their work and their organisation, you must create a culture that takes account of their ideas and preferences. Rewards will always be important, but employees also need to feel trusted and be given the autonomy to flourish.

So, instead of micromanaging projects by holding constant update meetings, why not present your staff with one or two overarching goals; give them a deadline, plus all the resources they’re likely to need; and leave them to get on with it? Who knows what winning innovations they might come up with?