Do you trust your employees?

Psychology suggests that you should. When employees feel trusted, empowered and equipped to make certain decisions about how, when and where they should work — a concept known as job autonomy — it results in a positive experience for both the worker and the employer.

As technology pushes the limits of what’s possible, business leaders can either stick to the status quo or take action to enable their employees to be more autonomous. Let’s take a deeper dive into why building trust and giving employees the space to fulfill their role can greatly benefit productivity in any organization.

The Psychology Behind Job Autonomy

According to the psychological theory of self-determination, autonomy plays a major role in helping people feel more motivated and fulfilled in their work. The self-determination theory defines autonomy as feeling in control of one’s decisions and behaviors. Autonomy is so impactful when it comes to motivating employees, because when people feel their choices have an effect on the output, they feel more responsible for their role and more invested in the overall outcome.

For example, consider the Montessori philosophy of education, which strongly values autonomy. Unlike a traditional, highly-structured classroom setting, a Montessori environment gives kids the freedom to choose what to work on, how to complete tasks, how long they work on them, who they work with and more. In one study, students rated themselves as being highly self-motivated to do their schoolwork — no small feat when talking to your average K-12 grade student.

When applied to the workplace, job autonomy refers to the level of independence an employee has over their work, including task management and completion, working hours and their work environment. By entrusting employees with greater autonomy, they perceive themselves as active contributors to the company’s success. Employers that give their employees a high degree of autonomy can see improvements in everything from creative thinking to customer service.

Providing Autonomy to Deskless Workers

For knowledge workers who are desk based, the concept of autonomy should sound familiar. Most desk-based workers have a certain degree of freedom to decide how to spend their day, how to execute certain tasks and more. Sure, they may have deadlines or quotas they’re held accountable to, but for the most part, information workers are given a certain degree of autonomy and trust.

But for the remaining 80% of the world’s workforce who do not work at a desk, there is a wide variability to the amount of autonomy they have. For example, most gig workers tend to have a high degree of autonomy, like a self-employed dog walker who decides the number of hours they work, where they go and the number of walks they’ll complete.

However, the level of autonomy available to dog walkers isn’t the reality for the vast majority of deskless workers. In fact, Skedulo’s most recent research report found that only 6% of organizations feel like their deskless workforce is “very autonomous,” and nearly one in three workers have low or limited control over their schedule.

Yet, 97% of organizations that employ deskless workers agree that increased employee autonomy would improve job performance, employee retention, client satisfaction and market share. Organizations that employ deskless workers are missing out on opportunities to empower their workforce, leaving the door open for employee frustration, attrition and innovative competitors to sweep up skilled employees.

Utilize the Right Technology

Historically, the lack of autonomy for deskless workers has been due to insufficient mobile technology. However, in this digital era, lack of technology isn’t the case anymore. Powerful, sophisticated mobile computing platforms, like smartphones, wearables and drones can complement and extend deskless workers’ capabilities in the field.

Today’s problem is the lack of technology adoption — not enough workers are equipped with tools that enable sophisticated decision making and task management. Skedulo’s study found that only 6% of organizations relied entirely on digital processes for deskless work and that 44% of organizations relied on paper-based processes half of the time or more.

To illustrate how deskless employees can experience moments of autonomy, consider the role of an internet cable technician. Though their schedule and assignments are determined for them, there are still opportunities when improvisation could be helpful, like when making an upsell in the event the customer needs new equipment. Equipping the cable technician with the technology to quickly solve customers’ needs through agile decision making can boost customer satisfaction and organizational efficiency.

The Future of Work is Here

The COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread digital transformation has made work more flexible — and portable — than ever before. Innovative companies should take advantage of these new gains by providing employees with the autonomy to manage the way they work. For deskless workers, the potential gains are even greater.

Organizations that equip their workers with the technology to enable greater independence will benefit from a more motivated, committed and higher-performing workforce — and experience greater agility, innovation and operational efficiencies in the process.