The Power of Formal Policy: Employees Want Autonomy — and Autonomy Requires Structure

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Talent is a company’s most valuable resource, and losing high-performing employees can really take a toll on a company’s bottom line. But the time, money, and manpower organizations put into making sure their employees are engaged enough to stay can be just as costly.

Employee engagement is a complex issue. Many different factors can lead workers to disengage, and what works to keep one person engaged may not necessarily inspire another. Organizational leaders can spin in circles trying to please everyone and never really touch on the deep-rooted issues at play.

The truth is that the most effective approach to shoring up employee engagement starts with getting back to basics. The key question every organization must ask is: “What can we do to promote the best employee experiences and enable workers to be successful?”

Here are a few solutions to this pressing challenge:

1. Focus on Standardization

One popular approach to attracting and retaining employees is to create a “fun” workplace. While it’s true that casual dress codes, ping-pong tables, free food, concierge services, and similar perks will engage some employees, what most people really want is the autonomy to do their job and do it well.

What does that look like in practice? Paradoxically enough, you can only grant employees the freedom they want if you have solid structures in place to govern those freedoms. As it turns out, most people like a little structure. They want to know what is expected of them. Autonomy without order means chaos, and people will quickly become overwhelmed without any structures to guide them.

Organizations, then, should have standardized policies wherever possible. For example, think about workplace flexibility. Does your organization have a formal telecommuting policy? Do you offer a compressed workweek, and if so, do employees know exactly what such a workweek should look like? Employees want flexibility, but they won’t be able to make effective use of it unless your policies around flexibility are clearly defined and communicated.

Buy-in is key. Employees who have a clear understanding of why following standardized practices benefits the entire organization can also act as stewards who uphold these formal policies, thereby maintaining the structures that allow for the autonomy workers desire.

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2. Apply Company Policy Consistently

Clearly setting expectations around standard company policies is just the beginning. Once policies and procedures have been defined, leaders must ensure they are consistently applied and followed. That means leaders, too, must adhere to standard practices.

Employees expect their leaders to follow through on commitments. If leaders do not set an example by consistently following policy themselves, employees will not feel motivated to adhere to formal policies either.

3. Be Transparent and Promote Accountability

Along with clear expectations and consistent application of policies, transparency is fundamental to a thriving, engaging workplace.

Employees don’t just want autonomy to do their jobs — they also want to see how their jobs contribute to the organization’s success. Sharing information about the organization’s achievements, opportunities, and even areas for improvement helps tie employees to the greater good. When employees understand how their work impacts the company, they feel more motivated to strive for greatness.

A monthly meeting in which company leaders share updates on organizational milestones and progress is a great way to promote transparency. Beyond companywide developments, these meetings should also share updates on department-specific activities. That way, employees across the organization can see what their colleagues are working on, which promotes further transparency.

That said, transparency won’t do much without accountability. Keeping employees and leaders alike accountable fosters a culture of responsibility, which in turn motivates employee performance further. Employees want to feel like their work really matters, and being held accountable shows them exactly that. Moreover, employees also appreciate when their managers hold accountable those team members who may be falling short of the standards expected. A cohesive, thriving team is one in which everyone does their part.

As employers work to retain more talent, their focus should be on creating positive workplace cultures that boost morale, keep everyone moving in the same direction toward shared goals, and give top performers a reason to stay.

Instead of attempting to keep all employees happy at all times, organizations must acknowledge this is an impossible feat. The best thing a company can do for its employees is to set them up for success by giving them clear expectations, consistently applying company policies, and promoting a culture of transparency and accountability from leadership.

The novelty of a “fun” workplace wears off rather quickly. What keeps employees satisfied for the long haul is the positive energy of an environment of mutual trust and respect.

Jackie Larson is the president of Avantas.

By Jackie Larson