The case for autonomous leadership in the remote workplace

While the temptation to monitor work-from-home employees is real, leaders who offer more freedom are having less trouble with the transition.

As visionary as he was, Thomas Edison probably didn’t foresee the Big Brother implications of video surveillance when he premiered the Kinetograph, a primitive movie camera, back in 1891. And he certainly couldn’t have predicted that the technology he helped pioneer would eventually feed into algorithms that analyze keystrokes, web-browsing habits, and faces, all in the name of calculating a productivity score for anxious employers. Yet here we are, in the spring of 2020, with tech surveillance startups seeing an egregious uptick in sales and executives scratching their heads trying to solve the problem of how to promote productivity in a remote workforce.

While the temptation to monitor work-from-home employees is real, leaders who offer more freedom, even in the remote workplace, are having less trouble with the transition and noticing a remarkable upside.


It may seem counterintuitive, but giving employees the freedom to complete their work creatively without the pressure of logging their hourly input not only mitigates anxiety and builds trust; it leverages their individual strengths and can add more value to the process.

A study from the University of Melbourne found that employees who were given more control over areas such as schedule, workflow, and input on strategy were more motivated, engaged, loyal, and mentally well. When employees were given more autonomy, the study showed, they were more likely to be self-driven and possess intrinsic motivation, which decreased the need for external rewards. It also showed teams were more competent and connected and less susceptible to burnout.

The argument isn’t for anarchy. Every work environment needs structure and a strong direction for employees to be aligned. But once that’s established, there should be room for employees to take ownership over their individual contributions and create in a style that is intuitive and plays up their strengths. This looks different in each work environment. In our business, for instance, which spans both tech and cryptocurrency, some areas, such as marketing and content have more room for creativity than others, such as software development or finance. What I’ve found is for areas with less rope, the simple act of asking for input on the vision and end goal can go a long way in increasing overall engagement. For people who crave more structure, there can still be clear guidelines and boundaries, but allowing them to partake in important conversations gives them a greater sense of ownership over their work.


Counter to the wise adage that “it’s the journey, not the destination that counts,” in business communicating the endpoint is often more important than marking the trail. Agree on the critical logistics: meeting place, arrival time, luggage essentials; then let your employees choose how they get there. Some might take a motorcycle, others might fly or choose an evening drive. If what vehicle your employees choose, what time of day they travel, and the route they select all lead to the same place, it can only benefit to allow them the freedom they desire to enjoy the journey.

Many employers and managers make the mistake of doubling down on systems and mandated processes that don’t work for all. This often hinders both performance and employee engagement. The DNA of your team changes with each hire. If you allow more flexibility in how goals are achieved, you are better positioned to capitalize on both the individual and collective strengths of your team.

This same principle applies to communication. Some employees communicate best in Slack, others email, Excel, or Powerpoint decks. Allowing for variation in work language may seem like an invitation for chaos, but in reality it gives employees an opportunity to express their core ideas and contributions through a medium that is intuitive to them and plays up their strengths. Different work languages may also resonate better with other key members of your team.

Bottom line is, if you’re too stringent with process—and this often derives from a need for more visibility and control—you risk burying talent or deterring it from entering your virtual door. This is particularly true for the emerging workforce. A defining trait of Gen Z is their need for individual expression. Having the ability to deliver work in a way that feels more authentic is a huge draw for this generation, which already makes up 24% of the workforce and is expected to grow to 30% by 2030. Employers who are willing to capitalize on individual contributions in a platform-agnostic way will have a leg up on their competitors both now and in the future.


If there’s one area where micromanagers and autonomous leaders may meet, it’s at the virtual watercooler, albeit with different agendas. Since much of the global workforce has been mandated to work from home, Zoom happy hours and virtual lunch breaks have become the new norm. For micromanagers, meetings, however casual in intent, mean more time to monitor for employee engagement, informally grill for productivity, and ultimately steal glances behind an otherwise closed work-from-home curtain.

For autonomous leaders, however, these meetups not only serve as an optional social outlet for employees self-isolating at home; they can also lead to invaluable feedback that might otherwise be missed. I’ve come to realize over the years that many of the most important workplace conversations don’t take place during scheduled meetings or even in 1:1 reviews; they take place when the pressure is off and guards are down. If you build in casual interactions to the workday, even the most introverted employees are more likely to voice important opinions and keep communication open, which can lead to impactful insights.


Regardless of your leadership style, we can all agree businesses need to meet key performance metrics to thrive. However, many companies make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on measuring input—particularly when they have less visibility into the day-to-day operations of their team. In today’s digital world, there is no lack of access to technological tools, from Time Doctor to Hubstaff, that allow managers insight into time spent, keystrokes typed, and web pages browsed. But putting too much emphasis on managing the process can be a distraction from the end goal and use up valuable resources. It ends up adding to the problem rather than creating a solution.

When you’re focused on tracking output, that is, the big milestones that really move your business forward, it often requires no more than a weekly check-in to allow teams to touch base on what’s been completed and what’s on the schedule moving forward. For areas such as product development that may require monitoring at a more granular level, a daily stand-up in Slack can be a digitally transparent way to communicate what’s being worked on and any impediments in the way. This allows leaders detailed vision as needed, while still putting trust in the managers they’ve hired to oversee key areas of the business.


All employees thrive in environments where trust is reciprocated and individual differences are not only supported but applauded. While the stars may be temporarily aligned for Big Brother cultures to flourish, when the economy rebounds and employees have more optionality, companies that chose to surveil to prevail may find they’ve alienated precious talent and irrevocably damaged their employee brand. On the flip side, companies that have embraced the merits of a flexible work environment will not only have experienced a smoother and more effective transition into the next generation of work culture but will also continue to build their value proposition for talent. It’s the case of choosing innovation to embrace the future rather than clinging to invention to stay in the past. Even Edison could agree with that.

-Fast Company

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