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What is autonomy and why it matters for work-life balance

Bilge Özensoy

The Great Resignation has taken the world by storm with long-lasting (if not permanent) effects. Organizational psychologist Professor Anthony Klotz, who had foreseen the Great Resignation and coined the term points out that “The pandemic brought the future of work into the present of work,” and that there is “[no] going back to the world of work in 2019”.Changes and heated discussions within the sphere of work are here to stay, and one certain term stands out–autonomy. Workers now prioritize and demand personal autonomy in their professional life, or in other words, the right to choose how they structure their work and lives.Millions around the globe have quit their jobs in the past two years to simply seek a better life and a better understanding of work. (This sentiment even found echo in pop icon Beyoncé’s chart-dominating song.) According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Trends report, among the top priorities of talents choosing a new job is work-life balance with 63%, surpassing compensation and benefits.There is no doubt that we seek more than material motivations for work. Now that the conversations are shifting toward how we can achieve non-material satisfaction at work, the concept of autonomous work is gaining more relevance than ever. Let’s look into:

  • what it means for the workplace
  • why it’s necessary (not just for work-life balance but for sustainable employment)
  • how to incorporate it into workplace culture.

What is autonomy in the workplace and why is flexibility not enough?

By definition, autonomous means self-ruling and self-directed. For etymology enthusiasts–it comes from the Greek word autonomia, a compound of autos (self) and nomos (custom, law, rule). But what do we mean by autonomy at work, and how is it different from flexibility if not a synonym?Flexibility is a great soft skill for talents to have. It is also a must-have value that many organizations incorporate into their culture. But it’s one thing to have some degree of “flexibility” on where, when, and how to work, and another to autonomously make those decisions for yourself.Among organization leaders, flexibility has become a synonym for longer work hours.  And the flexibility of workers to adapt to stressful situations. We need to expand flexibility to become a holistic approach to work and life that benefits everyone involved–not just employers.Having autonomy in business expands the notion of flexibility to include the will and self-direction of individuals. It includes the right to make meaningful decisions for one’s life and work and enables ownership over the work that is being done.For organization leaders, this might be puzzling, but the puzzle does make a meaningful whole when coupled with the fitting pieces. A culture of autonomy at work allows all parts of the bigger whole to function according to their capacity and needs. This way, the team can collaborate in the true sense, with everyone showing up as their authentic selves.Employee autonomy does not mean the complete lack of structure and alignment, nor leaving talents unattended and leaving all the decisions to them. It is rather about allowing space for individuals to figure out:

  • how they can make work “work” for them
  • how they can steer their own life on their terms and still produce the business outcomes that they set out for
  • how to act as part of a team (if that’s the case for them)
  • the pace of tasks and work conduct that fit their personality and capacities
  • most suitable time and location arrangements for their circumstances

Why is autonomy essential for work-life balance?

Amid awkward Zoom calls and navigating the extraordinary conflation of work and home life at the peak of the pandemic, we have seen that work and life look different for everyone. Hence, the conversation is moving past the simple dichotomy of work and life. The discussion of “work-life balance” requires reframing.We need to talk about work and life in ways that don’t position work as an all-consuming, invasive bulk. But rather, as something that we get to tailor according to our life circumstances, that allows us to affirm our lives through meaningful self-actualization.There is no single formula for work-life balance. However, we can talk about a few prerequisites that enable people to achieve it on their own terms, and autonomy comes at the top of the list. Here are some of the relevant benefits of work autonomy according to research:

  • higher levels of overall well-being
  • increased job satisfaction
  • increased leisure and life satisfaction
  • ease in balancing tasks such as family commitments, caring responsibilities
Woman worried about work-life balance

Who needs autonomy at work the most?

Everyone deserves to work in conditions that allow them to flourish and live their life to their best capacity. Yet, for some, such conditions are not just ideal but mandatory to keep them in the labor force.Unfortunately, women still bear responsibility for a significant portion of family care and household work. Torn between the demands of work and caregiving, a large proportion of women drop out of the labor market and reduce their hours after childbirth.For caregivers, the center of life is the person they’re responsible for, whether it’s a child or another family member in need of care. Having autonomy over their schedule and pace allows caregivers to find the structure that works for them. This results in increased job satisfaction and better mental well-being in the long run.Speaking of well-being, another such instance is workers with invisible illnesses. Invisible illnesses (or invisible disabilities) refer to conditions that do not always have an immediate physical manifestation. Some examples include epilepsy, mental health conditions, neurodiversity, and chronic pain disorders. The majority of disabilities (about 74%) are invisible and do not require any visible aid.Invisible illnesses can make one’s life inconsistent from one day to another. They also require medical attention, which is not always available during regular work hours. Autonomous work allows workers with invisible illnesses to manage their symptoms and find the right arrangements to work at their best capacity.Lastly, for workers from marginalized backgrounds, workplace autonomy is not simply “ideal”, but a must. The 100-year-old traditional work arrangements were established by those in power, for those in power. They maintain the structural inequalities and day-to-day discrimination faced by women, people of color, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ professionals.Location-independent work arrangements can decrease the microaggressions and policing of linguistic and bodily expressions that employees of color, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ professionals are subjected to in physical office environments. Less code switching and less emotional labor, along with the psychological fulfillment of having autonomy at work, allows marginalized professionals to realize their potential with much less friction.

How to embrace autonomy in the workplace

When a talent feels a lack of autonomy over their work, they tend to quit. Non-material reasons come before monetary concerns in why people partake in the Great Resignation. Organizations and leaders need to adapt to the demands of the current paradigm and ensure employee autonomy.What does an autonomous workplace look like? It starts in the culture and values. Work arrangements need to be human-centric, not work-centric. Here are some of the values and practices to solidify human-centric autonomous work:

  • culture of trust and responsibility
  • independence-focused job descriptions
  • freedom and involvement in decision making
  • location-independence and remote work
  • asynchronous and time-flexible schedules
  • growth mindset, room to make mistakes and learn
  • use of flexible technologies enabling autonomous work

Self-rule is the new rule

Just because things are the way they are, doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. The way we understand and practice work is going through major changes–self-rule is becoming the new rule.Many employees leaving traditional employment in the past few years are either going to nontraditional work (temporary, gig, or part-time roles) or starting their own businesses.Of the employees who quit without a new job in hand, 47 percent chose to return to the workforce. However, only 29 percent returned to traditional full-time employment. As location-independent, asynchronous work models emphasizing employee autonomy gain prevalence, organizations need to keep up.At Ruul, we develop universal solutions for the remote reality, enabling solo talents to work with organizations in autonomy and harmony. We also curate news, tips and guides on the latest work trends and arrangements. Keep an eye on our blog and connect with us on LinkedIn and Instagram to stay up-to-date.


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