Managing autonomy in virtual and hybrid teams

Blackbird silhouette flying solo through a pink and blue sky to get across managing autonomy in the workplace.

Managing autonomy in a virtual or hybrid team isn’t easy. Where once checking-in with a team member could be as simple as bumping into someone in the office kitchen, now it needs to be that bit more intentional. Managing the balance between “checking-in” and “checking-up” can be tricky: get it right and your team feels supported by a manager who takes an interest in their work and wellbeing; get it wrong and your team feels your looming presence over their micromanaged virtual shoulder!

It’s a balance many managers are struggling with, particularly as remote work and hybrid working arrangements are clearly here to stay.

Studies have shown that over a third (37%) of remote workers believe that working from home can lead to reduced visibility and less access to company leadership. A similar number (39%) of workers said that they felt a greater sense of belonging when their colleagues checked in with them and asked how they were doing, highlighting the need for managers to take regular and frequent check-ins seriously.

Visibility around work and project progress is an important element of managing a team virtual or otherwise.

However, micromanagement isn’t the answer.

A HBR study found that employees who report high levels of close monitoring are less likely to feel trusted by their managers. This can have a detrimental effect on psychological safety, engagement and productivity and increase levels of stress and absenteeism. Having an element of self-direction is an important factor in workplace happiness — autonomy can help people to feel more empowered and is one of the key factors in increasing employee motivation, focus and creativity.

Getting the balance between the need for visibility and this desire for autonomy can be tricky. So, what can managers do to get it right and build more empowered, happier and more productive virtual and hybrid teams?

Challenging our beliefs

For many managers, the first step to managing autonomy is challenging pre-existing beliefs about motivation.

Managers who believe that people see work as a burden, who believe their employees come to work because they must rather than because they want to, are more likely to adopt an authoritarian motivational style (let’s call this ‘Theory X’). We’ve all met this person — the one who waves a carrot whilst brandishing a stick! This style assumes that people need extrinsic motivation to perform well — without close attention and clear reward, people are likely to become less productive.

On the flip side, managers who believe that people are internally motivated to work, who believe that their employees take pride in their work and want to do a good job, are more likely to adopt a participative motivational style (ladies and gentleman ‘Theory Y’). These managers are more likely to take a collaborative approach to management, trust their employees to take initiative and offer higher levels of autonomy.

When managing autonomy in virtual or hybrid teams, these beliefs can become more apparent. A manager who has low trust in their employees can no longer stroll through the office and subtly (or not-so-subtly) check they’re hard at work; instead, they have to email, message or call — something that can feel more intentional, obvious and intrusive. A Theory X approach to management can quickly cross over into micromanagement and an unhappy and unproductive team.

As the world embraces flexible, hybrid and remote working, it’s essential that managers challenge these beliefs around employee motivation. Though most workplaces will require a combination of Theory X and Theory Y approaches, this should be informed as much as possible by this question of visibility vs. autonomy, rather than by pre-existing personal assumptions.

Managing autonomy — different types

On the flip side, while micromanagement is not the answer, neither is absolute self-direction. Very few of us (if any!) are intrinsically motivated all the time and a complete lack of managerial direction can lead to a lack of reciprocal trust and a dip… or even a nosedive… in engagement and productivity.

So, how can managers make sure their teams feel trusted to take control of their own work without losing motivation?

Well, autonomy isn’t an all-or-nothing deal! There are different types and levels of autonomy that you may want to discuss with your individual team members to see which best suits them.

1. Where

For a virtual or hybrid team, “where” autonomy is an obvious place to start! The recent rise in remote working has proven that many traditional “office jobs” can be done remotely and research suggests that most of us want to continue working this way. When building a remote working policy, consider:

  • How often, if ever, are people expected to come into the office?
  • Are people able to choose the days they work remotely?
  • Do you have security policies in place to allow remote workers to work from public places like co-working spaces or cafés?
  • Do you have policies in place to support digital nomads?

2. When

As much as the traditional office job is on the decline, so too is the typical 9-5. For many people, a degree of flexibility over their working hours can help them to better manage their work-life balance — something that is vital for health, happiness and overall wellbeing. Before deciding that the 9-5 should stay in fashion forever, ask yourself:

  • Do you really need everyone to be available at the same times every day, or could some work be completed asynchronously?
  • Could allowing people a degree of control over their working hours help them to build a better work-life balance?
  • How might you be able to implement core working hours that allow people to flex their days around set synchronous working times?

3. What

Though most jobs come with a set of core responsibilities that need to be fulfilled, there’s often some flex in the additional tasks and projects we pick up along the way. According to Dan Pink, we make most progress when we play to our strengths, so allowing your team a degree of choice over what they do can help to improve performance and productivity — everyone wins! When assigning tasks, consider:

  • Do you take into consideration individual team members’ skills, strengths, and preferences?
  • Do people have a say over what responsibilities they take on?
  • Can people bring new ideas to the table that allow them to utilise their strengths and minimise their reliance on weaknesses?

Want to learn how to identify individual’s strengths and get the best out of your team? Take a look at our workshop on Leveraging my strengths.

4. How

Every organisation has systems and processes that need to be followed, whether for legal or confidentiality purposes, industry safety standards or pure convenience. Outside of this though, there are myriad ways of working! If you want your team members to be at their best and feel that they have some degree of self-direction, consider:

  • Which is more important — processes or results?
  • Do you allow people to flex their processes depending on the task?
  • Are people able to suggest new ways of working that better suit their working styles and preferences?

The importance of communication

Whether you’re looking to completely overhaul your company culture or make a few forward-thinking tweaks, communicating your intentions regarding workplace autonomy is crucial. Expectations around ways of working are not always as clear in a virtual environment as they are in a face-to-face office, and once implicit boundaries may need to be made explicit.

Decide what types and levels of autonomy you’re able to offer and speak to your team about it. Encourage them to view this as an ongoing conversation and consider where you can adjust as individual needs change. Though it may not always be possible to offer a high level of autonomy in every aspect, it’s crucial to find ways of helping your team to draw on their intrinsic motivations and feel empowered to take control of their working day.

It’s time to level up your approach in managing autonomy, trust your employees and let them show you what a truly empowered workforce can do.

If you’re looking to learn more about workplace autonomy and the impact this can have on motivation and performance, check out our virtual workshops on Creating empowerment, Team motivation and Building high performance teams

More of our latest news