Freedom in the Workplace (A balance of Autonomy and Accountability)
India celebrated its Independence Day a few days ago. The joy of being an independent nation also brings a high degree of responsibility and accountability with it. When we superimpose the same thought process on organizations, most individuals wonder if the guidelines remain the same. Employees have a view on what freedom at the workplace means for them and so do organizations. But are the two perspectives aligned? Do they speak to each other and operate together?
That is the question we want to be able to answer today.
Let us try and understand what defines freedom in the workplace for both segments – the employees and the organizations.
An employee usually views freedom in the workplace within the context of three elements. These are - freedom of thought, of action and of words. They evaluate their organizations as well as those that they aspire to become a part of, in terms of these aspects. They also make their choice to continue working in an organization or move out of it, based on this.
- Does the workplace provide an unbiased platform and process for employees to share feedback and express his or her concerns?
- Does it help the employees to become confident and empowered to share his / her ideas without the fear of being humiliated or negated?
- Does it help them to formulate and talk about their opinions, to each other and the leadership?
- Does the workplace give opportunities or assignments that allow one to think beyond the set patterns?
- Does it provide a nurturing environment where business-critical thoughts can be developed further?
- Does the organization give its employees space to think in a tangential manner irrespective of age, gender, physical ability and so on?
- Does the employee have the freedom to fail, when an action related to business has been a mistake?
- Does the workplace give employees the freedom to make choices that help them balance their work and life phases?
- Does the workplace give employees the option to act as its representative, in external situations especially with clients?
RMSI, a global IT services company in India was selected as a Great Place to Work some years ago and they shared the reason for the same. They provided high levels of empowerment along with accountability to their employees. Each employee takes ownership of his or her area of domain and the employees’ involvement in company’s business decisions is also significantly high.
For an employee the above aspects are some ways in which they perceive freedom in the workplace. While some of them are desirable or have a positive impact on the organization’s culture as well as the employee’s well-being, a few might be personal elements of freedom for an individual and not relevant for an organization. Freedom is a powerful tool and particularly in the Indian context where until some decades ago, there was a high degree of emphasis on hierarchy within an organization. There was a vertical structure that was preferred and one which entailed levels of approvals for a small decision. This is still the situation in many Indian organizations. That kind of approach might tend to reduce motivation and creativity.
For example, when employees are given the freedom to work or solve a problem on their own, they are likely to think of a solution that is unique and involves their own thought process. This is their way of bringing an innovative solution to tackle the issue and the more the number of innovative solutions available, the better it is for the future. Diversity of thought leads to such ideas and only when the organization’s practices are supportive can it thrive.
With a multigenerational workforce the freedom at work has become a business imperative. Organizations have now started realizing the value that many people attach to freedom. Curtailing it directly or indirectly, is not a solution. Creating a framework that identifies and defines freedom, with boundaries, is a challenging but essential task.
Organizations such as Google or Facebook, are known for the autonomy they provide to their employees. That in turn helps to foster a positive environment where employees feel valued and happy. The key lies in creating the right balance of Autonomy and Accountability. Freedom in the workplace is also defined by many organizations as Employee Empowerment. Employee Empowerment is defined theoretically by Newstrom and Davis (1998) is any process that provides greater autonomy by sharing the relevant information as well as the factors that control and affect an employee’s job performance.
When we explore this closely, it means, that while it is important to give employees freedom at work, guiding them on how to use that freedom is as important. Companies need to define “freedom at work” and behavior that defines it as well as focus on sharing what entails behavior that is unacceptable under the pretext of freedom.
The organization’s interpretation of freedom can also be classified under Words, Thoughts and Actions, that it expects from its employees.
- There should be no misuse of freedom of expression to share controversial, racist, sexist or offensive opinions.
- Freedom does not entail discussion of one’s own private life or that of other colleagues
- Use of unsuitable or inappropriate words or language at work
- Lack on integrity and thought in terms of sharing the right information with stakeholders
- Lack of discretion or understanding when referring to sensitive information or confidential data related to the company.
- Inability to be flexible in timings when work requirements are high Empowered decision being used for taking risky decisions that impact business
The organization, therefore, has a definition of freedom in the work place which overlaps with that of the employee in some ways but is also different in other ways. For an organization provisions related to creating freedom in the workplace also translate into providing flexibility to its employees and thereby reducing its own fixed costs. It also translates into giving them the space to take decisions about their own job and career, but within certain parameters.
Freedom of expression without any boundaries is not a desirable option in any organization. Free speech is also bound by limits so that the organization’s culture remains positive and inclusive. Employees have a right to express what they feel, but how they express it is defined by a set of rules that most organizations put in place. This applies to some sets of information even when the employee is not within the company’s premises. He or she cannot exercise unrestrained freedom of speech with respect to company’s financial data or internal issues or client details. The social media boom has made employees less wary and they are quick to pass judgement, talk about work related instances and even name their organizations. This kind of freedom can lead to challenges for the employees too, since it demonstrates lack of ethics or protocol. Speaking against an employer on incorrect forums or virtual platforms can have serious legal repercussions for an individual too.
It is essential to understand that freedom in the workplace is not a trend. It is an ongoing process which requires as much effort from the employee as much as from the employer. Organizations need to provide empowered environments but employees need to sustain it through mature actions. Companies need to provide autonomy of decision making but employees can retain it only with ethical decision making.