"Flexibility vs. Autonomy: How Can Leaders Support Their Team Members in the Hybrid Era?"

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash
Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

Working remotely has become the reality for most employees since the beginning of the pandemic. The abrupt change took people by surprise and as many companies sent their employees home to work virtually, remote work had a Big Moment.


What may have created panic at first soon became the norm, as it was quickly apparent to many office-based teams that employees could be productive and focused – even when not in the physical workplace.

There are many benefits to this working style, including a better work-life balance, less commuter stress, location independence, and money-saving, to name just a few. Technological advances allow remote workers to do their job at a distance – often all that’s needed is a computer and a good internet connection.


Remote work comes with its challenges as well – overwork, social isolation, and screen fatigue are real – albeit manageable– difficulties. Nevertheless, many employers who embrace flexible working environments find that the positives far outweigh the negatives. The integration of work and life should be considered more than just a trend.

Photo by Filipp Romanovski on Unsplash
Photo by Filipp Romanovski on Unsplash

Flexibility has become an integral part of the employment package. After more than a year of working from home, many companies with the so-called “traditional” working styles (and outdated and rigid policies), were forced to rethink their approach.


Now that many organizations are (again) navigating uncharted waters in the Hybrid Working era, managers and leaders are struggling to find the balance between in-person and remote work – something which varies for every person, every team, and every company.


The New Hybrid Era

Nick Iovacchini, CEO and co-founder of Kettle, an NYC-based company, has been a pioneer of Hybrid Work for the last five years and spoke about what this may look like in a post-pandemic world. So, what does Hybrid Work truly mean?


Iovacchini describes Hybrid Work as “something other than everybody back in the office five days a week.” Perhaps the biggest challenge that employers now face is finding the balance between a rule and a choice when it comes to navigating this new climate – workers are now coming from over a year of remote work, giving them the freedom they may never have had before. 

Photo by Rita Chou on Unsplash
Photo by Rita Chou on Unsplash

What employees want more than ever, is to feel that they are in control of where and when they work. Within the context of Hybrid Work, this means being the primary decision-makers of how they will spend their 40+ working hours per week.


Forget About Fancy Offices

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, called this phenomenon the “Hybrid Paradox” – meaning that people want the flexibility to work from anywhere, but they simultaneously crave more in-person connection.


Harvard Business Review conducted a study with more than 5,000 workers and asked them what they expected from working arrangements. 59% of respondents said that “flexibility” is more important than an inflated paycheck. 77% reported that they’d prefer to work for a corporation that gives them the flexibility to work from anywhere, rather than from fancy corporate headquarters.


If they aren’t given the flexibility and autonomy to choose how and where they work, employees will think twice about their employer. The aversion is real, and organizations who refuse to adapt to the Hybrid Wave with more flexibility may lose staff.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

In June, Apple employees demanded more flexibility after Tim Cook’s plans for workers to get back in the office three times a week. The following is an excerpt from an internal letter, penned by Apple employees: "Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our wellbeing, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple…Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored". Essentially, the letter suggests a ‘disconnect’ between management and employees on the topic of remote or flexible working.


Autonomy is the New Normal

The employees at Apple highlighted that embracing remote work is paramount, and location-flexible work decisions should “be as autonomous for a team to decide as are hiring decisions”.



In the same study, 73% of people agreed that “office space should be seen (in the future) as a benefit, rather than a mandatory way of work.” Tied to that, is a sense of autonomy that workers demand from their leaders. Flexibility is just one part of the equation; in other words, the flexibility they want is conditional upon the autonomy to decide what’s best for them. It’s more than just giving people what they want; when they feel “controlled”, some people might lose motivation. Company values are arguably as important as salary and other benefits.

Photo by Rietveld Ruben on Unsplash
Photo by Rietveld Ruben on Unsplash

When it comes to intrinsic human motivation, Psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci coined the Self-Determination Theory (SDT). What they call “high-quality motivation” is when people are fully absorbed and involved in something where they perform at their best. There are, however, three main factors that facilitate this motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


We are all unique individuals, so there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach to Hybrid Work. Many leaders and companies may not know how to build a Hybrid Workforce that works for both sides. Here are some ways to enable autonomy in Hybrid Work:


Communication is Key

It’s clear that employers and employees have different expectations, and organizations – especially the higher levels of leadership – should understand that challenges associated with remote work are far less than those faced when working in the office.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Instead of assuming what workers want and imposing policy-driven mandates, which are likely to be rejected by those working for them, companies should encourage clear and open communication, in order to understand their employees’ needs better.


Establish and Implement Clear Guidelines 

Now that communication is clear and expectations are settled, leadership should focus on creating high-trust environments and encouraging workers to choose how they wish to work, in line with the company values and principles.


This allows leadership and employees to create a common ground - setting out a guideline with best practices whilst not stepping on employees’ toes or making the same mistake as Apple.


Increase Workplace Compassion

The Compassionate Leadership Model is, in part, based on the proposition of Mindful Leadership. According to this leadership model, a compassionate leader is self-motivated, considered a positive influence upon their team members, and makes others feel secure at work.

Photo by airfocus on Unsplash
Photo by airfocus on Unsplash

Whether in a Hybrid, remote, or in-office environment, an organizational system that supports and fosters their employees to be open, honest and seen, will lead to tighter bonds between senior and junior staff, an increased sense of overall well-being, trust, motivation and job satisfaction.


Give Employees Full Autonomy

The traditional concept of working nine to five, five days a week, 160 hours a month is still systematic in virtually all organizations worldwide. We have inherited this model from the industrial times, where manual labor dominated. However, advances in technology now enable us to rethink and reframe the concept of the workplace. Most office workers can do their job without a specific working schedule or location, and by encouraging autonomy and flexibility, employers may find that their happy and healthy workforce is more productive than ever.



Camila Santiago is a content writer and strategist specializing in health and corporate wellness, including extensive experience writing SEO-friendly content. She writes, edits and proof-reads content on wellness topics spanning physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and does so for organizations aiming to improve overall employee wellbeing and professional excellence.

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