Flexibility or Autonomy? And what about employees who are line-workers?

There seems to be a lot of literature around how to create a flexible work environment for knowledge workers - as mentioned in my last blog there's the ROWE (results only work environment) that has increasingly become popular where employees are encouraged to work where they want, when they want and how they want as long as they achieve results.

But how does this work for retail folks who have to be in the store for the hours that are open to the public. Same with restaurant staff. Hotel staff has to be coordinated as well so that there aren't 10 people working one shift and no one working the next. Also, as in my friend's dry-walling business, the how of the work is often specific due to regulatory constraints. Even when you look at literal -in manufacturing who stand at a conveyor belt - the when, where and how are very specific, and has to be.

I've been asking around and here's a couple of ideas that have been passed along:

1) While some workers may not have control over the how, when and where of their work because of the nature of the work, they can have some control over their work environment. In one company, they have created a forum where employees' suggestions and ideas on how to improve the work and/or the work environment are taken seriously, discussed and considered. And then the ideas are either acted upon, altered and acted upon or employees are given a legitimate reason why the idea may not be a good fit.

2) I e-mailed ROWE about my husband and I's moving company asking how to provide flexibility to employees that have to be at a specific house at a specific time. Even worse, our movers don't know if, when and how long they work the following day until the night before. Talk about a personal scheduling nightmare (I'm a hard core planner at heart - just ask my spontaneous husband.) Michael Barata kindly responded with some excellent questions, "Do your crews have the freedom and support to schedule how they meet the needs of the customers? Are your crews involved with how jobs get scheduled and how crews are assigned to the jobs? As for answering customer calls, would your employees be interested in call forwarding, so they would not necessarily need to be in an office, but still be available to the customer? Essentially, ask the employees their thoughts on meeting customer needs and what that may look like to them? The results = meeting customer needs."

I know our moving crews love their autonomy on the job - a crew goes to a customer's home to move them and essentially they are their own boss. They decide how to get the job done and work together to make it happen. They have no one micromanaging them and they can completely own their results. Granted there are specific ways to do a move, to prepare furniture etc. but they have control over the experience of the customer.

Flexibility is not autonomy. And if I had to guess, autonomy is king. Flexibility in schedule and location is appreciated and valued. But autonomy gets to the guts of our sense of worth, of ownership and hence value around what we participate in, create and offer to those around us.

What do your employees have control over? What is their impact at the end of the day? How does who they are and what they do affect the company, co-workers and customers? And go beyond the obvious. Get to the heart and soul of what matters to your company and to your employees. Flexibility - great. Real deal "I make a difference" - gold.

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