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Risk In Context

Healthy autonomy and managing remote team wellbeing

Posted by Thy Cao January 21, 2021

For some organisations, employer-employee trust and relations have been a longstanding barrier to the broader adoption of remote working. This barrier was quickly circumvented when COVID-19 hit and 2020 saw a significant and abrupt shift in the way we work. To help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and comply with government restrictions, a significant portion of the Australian workforce moved online as many companies swiftly implemented work from home policies. Pre-pandemic, this may not have been a top priority. As such many companies did not have the policy and procedures in place to manage a remote workforce and had to develop and implement this change in working condition without any lead-in time. The abrupt change and disruption left many employees and their managers feeling un-equip to manage such a change, as a result we are now seeing a surge in training to help upskill managers on how to manage remote teams and their well-being.

Designing and re-thinking working from home arrangements 

When re-designing the traditional workplace and arrangements for working from home, the OHS Body of Knowledge (2019) found eight emerging key principles for companies to consider to help address physical and psychological health and safety as well as deliver on work outcomes.1

  1. Recognise the diversity of the work group. Diversity is to be celebrated. We became increasingly accustomed to harnessing and cherishing differences between teams and the individuals within. This is important to remember when developing and implementing work from home arrangements as well. For example, the needs of someone living alone is entirely different of those who have to care for children and elderly parents. 
  2. Flexibility. Policies and arrangements for working from home should offer flexibility. For example, many workers who have school age children will not schedule meetings around school drop off and pick up time. 
  3. Empowerment and ownership for employees. When working from home employees need to be empowered and have ownership of their health and safety. While not disregarding employers responsibility, it acknowledges that employees would often be placed to advise on risks of working in their own homes. Employers should not prescribe the conditions for the work to occur but should enable and support the employee to establish a healthy and safe environment. For example, the employee may not have a suitable chair to sit in at home. The employer may want to offer an ergonomic assessment to help the employee identify a suitable solution and strategies to maintain optimum ergonomic whilst working. 
  4. Holistic approach. Guidance for people working from home should be holistic. While addressing the physical conditions of the work environment, such as ergonomic set ups, is key, employers need to factor other matters. This includes the management of working hours and breaks – establishing clear boundaries between work, home and leisure. Guidelines may need to vary for workers who are working from home for all or a majority of their work hours compared to those who are only working from home occasionally. For example, packing away the laptop at the end of the day and placing it in a designated area once work was completed, so that it was not easily accessible to be turned on, or switching off the work email notifications on mobile phones.
  5. Belonging. A sense of identity, social connectedness and belonging to a team is an integral factor to consider when developing work from home plans. For example, arranging lunch dates with colleagues who live nearby, forming/joining common interest groups. 
  6. Leadership. Organisational leaders need to take an active role in enabling safe and successful work from home arrangements. Beyond accepting the concept, leaders need to be active in both implementation and problem solving. A buddy or mentor system for managers to check in and support each other can be one way of maintaining interconnectedness between leadership. 
  7. Support for managers. Work from home requires greater trust and alternative management techniques compared to traditional face-to-face working environments. Some managers, supervisors, and senior workers will require support and mentoring to enable them to expand their management approach. For example, providing a manager well-being support program where a well-being coach would touch base with the manager once a week for six weeks. 
  8. Risk management approach. As with all risk management the context in which the risk occurs is key. These differences need to be respected and OHS professionals, managers and workers need to work together to identify the needs and conditions to support safe and healthy work. Short-term fixes, such as improvised back support through pillows, require longer term consideration to avoid foreseeable and avoidable injuries.

The critical role of autonomy 

Autonomy is one of many factors to ensure remote worker well-being. Autonomy refers to the ability for a person to act on their own values and interest in the context of the work environment. Healthy autonomy is a key component to a successful working from home culture that promotes productivity and accountability. 

The level of autonomy depends on many factors such as organisational culture, management style (e.g. micro-managers vs autonomous leaders), generational diversity and expectations. With so many factors at play it is important to tailor your approach to each employee, use different communication styles and understand how often someone wants to be communicated to. For example, understanding generational diversity will help us tailor communication styles (especially now when communication fatigue is starting to occur), understanding that Generation Z are the first generation to grow up in a world that is completely wireless and they are the group that is constantly connected. To get a message across to them you will need to tailor bite-sized information. They also prefer immediate feedback from their employers, whilst on the other end of the spectrum the baby boomers, who grew up making phone calls and writing letters to stay connected, prefer the one-to-one communication and phone calls over emails and instant messaging. 

Healthy employee autonomy and remote management are critical to the success of any work-from-home policies or arrangements. COVID-19 has forced many leaders to quickly upskill and adapt to remote management, which requires a different skill-set than face-to-face management. Leaders across various industries had to make this transition quickly and for the most part, without proper training. Even prior to COVID-19, managing remote workers presented unique challenges (such as developing trust and minimal supervision expectations), let alone within the context of a stressful ongoing situation impacting the whole of society. 

Research has shown that healthy autonomy has a direct relationship with job satisfaction, morale, feeling valued, alleviation of work stress and increase in engagement and productivity.Working from home and having autonomy has allowed working parents to pick their children up from school without having to rush home from the office in peak hour traffic just to make it before pick-up time. Those who have pets are able to spend value time with their pets whilst working, and for those who lived further away from their workplace, the commute time has been pretty much eliminated, allowing space for other activities. However it is important for organisations to find the right balance between providing employees with autonomy and reinforcing accountability. Organisations and their leadership teams need to develop the appropriate strategies to promote and foster this amongst employees.

One such challenge to establishing healthy autonomy is building interpersonal trust. A study about remote workers found that interpersonal trust of the employee in their manager was found to be strongly associated with higher self-perceptions of performance, higher job satisfaction and lower job stress, which leads to better well-being. However with remote workers, more frequent communications between the manager and employee was associated with higher levels of interpersonal trust. Cognition-based trust was also found to be more important than affect-based trust in a remote work environment, suggesting that managers of remote employees should focus on activities that demonstrate competence, responsibility and professionalism.3

How to build autonomy in your teams 

Using the 4 T’s, Task, Time, Technique and Team from Daniel Pink’s (2009) principles of motivational theory can help increase autonomy and provide appropriate strategies to ensure accountability.4 Autonomy is different from independence because autonomy is about choice. 

For example: 

Task: employees want to have autonomy in deciding what to work on. For example, allowing employees time to devote to autonomous work. This has been utilised in such companies as Google and Atlassian which has resulted in some innovative products. 

Time: There are numerous studies that show people do better work when they are given autonomy in choosing when to work. This reduces the effects of presenteeism. 

Technique: Employees want autonomy on how to accomplish their work. Research showed that employees who felt empowered through being able to control how they do their work had better retention rates than those who felt that they were not in control.5 

Team: When possible, allowing employees to choose who they work with will lead to better engagement. Pink (2009) provided the example of Facebook which allows new employees to decide the team that they want to join. 

Using these four elements, a leader and their team can have ownership of their health, safety and well-being when working from home, whilst setting the scene to be accountable.

What else you need to consider

Learnings from the last year taught us that whatever COVID-19 response policies and procedures were in place need constant review and updating to reflect the constant changes occurring in society. Complacency in doing so increases the risk to the health, safety and well-being of workforces. 

1. Workers working from home: Core Body of Knowledge for the generalist OHS Professional, Second Edition, 2019. 

2. Daniel Wheatley. Autonomy in Paid Work and Employee Subjective Well-Being. Work and Occupations, 2017; https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0730888417697232 

3. Staples, D. S. (2001) A study of remote workers and their differences from non-remote workers, Journal of End User Computing, 13, 2, 3-14 

4. Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009. 

5. Liu, Dong & Zhang, Shu & Wang, Lei & Lee, Thomas. (2011). The Effects of Autonomy and Empowerment on Employee Turnover: Test of a Multilevel Model in Teams. The Journal of applied psychology. 96. 1305-16. 10.1037/a0024518. 

The information contained herein is general information only and is based on sources we believe reliable, but we make no representation or warranty as to its accuracy. © 2020 Marsh Pty Ltd. All Rights Reserved. 

LCPA: 21/011  

Related to  Workforce Risks , Australia

Thy Cao

Workplace Health Specialist, Marsh

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