One of the positive outcomes of the global pandemic, as employees work from home where they can, has been the need for more people to work increasingly autonomously, and make more day-to-day decisions within their role. Employees are more empowered. With the increasing hope around the impact of vaccines in 2021, and the potential return to traditional ways of working over the next year, this shift in working practices offers employees freedom and opportunity to mould and shape their future role.

Shaping the future

The idea of giving employees the freedom to design and operate their own job roles and their associated responsibilities, would strike fear into the hearts of some long-serving people managers, afraid that it would herald the end of their control and power. However, this should be far from the case. Allowing employees to shape what they do is part of a number of welcome cultural shifts that we’re seeing, as organisations deal with the effects of the pandemic and remote working. Where it’s done well, managers can maintain a level of control and performance, whilst at the same time empowering and engaging the workforce.

Obviously, the idea isn’t new and has been practised to a greater or lesser extent by many organisations, but the events of 2020 have increased the need for agile and flexible ways of working, and more resilience in the workforce. One noticeable change is that for many organisations, 100% of their employees are now working from home, rather than perhaps a select few who might have already worked flexibly. Dealing with this extension of trust, and a belief that every single employee is working to the best of their ability and making appropriate use of their new empowerment, is a big shift.

A positive experience

While many organisations are seeing their workforce become dispersed, those whose employees are allowed to align their work with their individual skills, and around their other interests and responsibilities, are benefiting from higher levels of employee engagement and a more positive employee experience. The pandemic has ‘forced’ organisations and employees to work in this way, but the positive outcome is that it has allowed employees to self-design their day-to-day working schedule and the levels of empowerment that they choose to take on.

What are the advantages of empowerment?

  • Allowing employees to choose how they complete tasks within their role makes work more enjoyable: it means more to them and creates job satisfaction and retention.
  • Organisations adapt new cultural thinking much faster as employees re-organise (but not eliminate) their tasks and roles within the team, creating innovative environments that are agile, and adapt quickly.
  • Empowering employees increases levels of trust at all points throughout the organisation – trust in leaders, line managers, colleagues and the organisation itself. In turn, employees have a greater level of belief in the future strategy of the organisation and are more willing to provide discretionary effort beyond their job role.

Let’s be clear, whilst role empowerment is increasing across many organisations, there are two fundamental things that have to happen for it to be successful:

  • A culture of empowerment. If there’s no culture of empowerment in the organisation and a sense of mistrust and belief in employees, role empowerment will never happen. Empowerment drives many things, including a positive belief in leadership and a positive employee experience.
  • Managerial trust. The current working situation must be the stuff of nightmares for the archetypal micro-manager. Direct reports out of earshot, doing their own thing at home, lack of close control, doing it their way etc. It must be worrying for them, to say the least. Indeed, with the rise of home working, there followed an increase in the purchase of employee monitoring software by a number of organisations. However, managerial trust is the key to role empowerment, and people managers have to trust that employees will carry out the roles they are assigned, and believe that they will achieve their key outcomes, even as the journey the employee takes to get there might be of their own design.

Steps to empowerment

So, what do we need to do to ensure that employees feel empowered within their roles and have the autonomy to operate, without the organisation falling apart?

  1. Creating people managers who trust colleagues. Trust is not something that comes naturally with the managerial role, especially when it’s ‘your head on the block’ when it comes to getting results. Managers want to know the job is being done, and done effectively. However, people managers are a critical group in the process, and they need to see trust in action from their own managers to become trusting themselves. Honest and open communications are a prerequisite, but providing people managers with training and toolkits will make it a simpler behavioural change, at the same time protecting your business priorities.
  2. Create boundaries. Where can the employee operate, and what are they empowered to do? Defining the role and, importantly, the boundaries of the role are important, and lessen the chance of conflict.
  3. Understand what empowerment looks like. For employees it is likely to be a mixture of autonomy in the role (the ability to make decisions), the ability to innovate and improve things, a chance to contribute to decisions around their job role, and a voice in the way things are done.
  4. Don’t get involved unless asked. It is obvious, but the whole point about empowerment is to give employees autonomy. As long as the role has been clarified and the required outcomes identified, let employees go through the process on their own, and only dip in if you are asked for help.
  5. Managers are not redundant in the process. Employees will still require communication and information to complete their role. They will need feedback to ensure they are on track, and, initially, managerial guidance to craft what their role entails.
  6. Recognition and feedback. It’s one thing to empower an employee, but even the most resolute amongst us requires confirmation and affirmation that we’re doing the right thing from time to time.

Empowerment is a critical component of employee engagement and the overall employee experience. It is not as easy as simply letting employees do their own thing; it’s part of a wider cultural change programme, but also something that has been accelerated for many organisations as a result of the pandemic.

It’s also worth recognising that not all colleagues will be comfortable being empowered, and people managers will still be required to help those who need a guiding hand. But for those colleagues who want to be empowered, it is a motivating and satisfying place to be.

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