Home Working: The Advantages of Autonomy

/ 31 March 2020

Autonomy plays a key role in gamification and behavioral sciences. It can be a powerful motivator when carrying out inherently interesting tasks, and for those that are not so captivating. 

With the arrival of the Covid-19, a lot of us are working from home and juggling all kinds of demands on our time and attention. As such, some businesses are embracing mass remote working and greater employee autonomy for the first time.

The fear of ‘shirking’ still lurks, but why? Whereas such concerns are easily dismissed as outdated and unfair, they originate from somewhere and need to be understood before they can be overcome.

The Fear 

A lot of management approaches today rest on “the belief that work is not inherently enjoyable”, says Daniel H. Pink, in ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’. The idea therefore being that “people need to be carefully monitored so they don’t shirk”. This is grounded, Pink explains, in the fact that the work of yesteryear was typically more repetitive and less rewarding than that of today.

It’s no surprise therefore that management was reliant on ‘extrinsic motivations’ (think ‘carrot and stick’), greater control and complete oversight to ensure work was being done.

Today however, there are lots more jobs that are inherently rewarding for all sorts of reasons. These professions benefit from ‘intrinsic motivation’, a term defined by psychology professor Harry F. Harlow to describe the joy of performing a task being its own reward.

Don’t get me wrong; fair pay, appropriate bonus schemes and good working conditions are the table stakes, but companies are increasingly attuned to the benefits of creating deeper employee engagement by harrnosing intrinsic motivation. From attracting the best talent, to encouraging passion projects that turn out to be big hits for the company (Google Translate and Google News for example), the rewards are clear.  

Many HR professionals will be familiar with ‘Flow’, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the ‘trance-like’ state people enter when they’re perfectly engaged with a task at hand, lose track of time and are at their optimal performance levels. It’s a win-win for employees and employers. 

What part does autonomy play?

A big part of autonomy is the freedom to do things when and how we choose. A lot of homeworkers are intrinsically invested in their work and call on a powerful combination of motivators to fulfill (and even exceed) the work they’d do within set hours from a centralised workplace. But what about the less captivating tasks? There will always be jobs that primarily rely on extrinsic motivations, and even in vocations that people find incredible rewarding, there will inevitably be tasks that are more difficult to make time for. Autonomy can help here too. 

Stating an outcome and giving freedom over how and when employees get the job done can empower and improve engagement through a number of what Yu-Kai Chou defines as ‘core drivers’ in his book Actionable Gamification; autonomy can create a sense of ‘development and accomplishment’, ‘empowerment of creativity and feedback’ and ‘ownership and possession”.

At 3radical, we spend a lot of time turning work into play (a concept known as the Sawyer Effect). Adding rewards, such as badges, prizes and progress bars to desired activities can help in the right circumstances. So too can gamifying aspects to make them enjoyable in and of themselves, such as facilitating friendly competition and implementing a compelling UX (user experience). 

People today increasingly expect their work to work for them. If tasks or roles in general lack intrinsic motivations, the carrot and stick approach (and enforcement purely through control), is less likely to work at the best of times in our modern age, let alone right now. Think instead about incentivising and motivating in different ways. 

The autonomy brought about through homeworking should not be feared. Behavioral sciences studies consistently show autonomous motivation not only produces greater conceptual understanding, but higher productivity and less burnout. Autonomy is part of working with the grain of the human psyche, rather than against it. 

To see how 3radical applies game science to engage employees please view our case studies here.

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