Managing the autonomous worker

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Whilst Gen Y and connectivity often get the blame for the development of more independent, self-managing attitudes towards work, the cause – and the solution – might not be what you think.

Recent research from oDesk revealed 72% of 19-30-year-olds are seeking to become self-employed. The boom in connectivity and advent of new information technologies is often accredited with this shift, although it may not be the only player.

“Whether that is an extent of all the Gen X and Gen Y stuff is slightly doubtful, but increasingly, as society rewards autonomy, then generations coming into the workforce look for more,” Shaun McCarthy, chairman of Human Synergistics, said.

McCarthy believes that the change has been gradual from generation to generation. “As a baby boomer, starting work in the early 70s, I was prepared to sit there and be told what to do,” he said. “Twenty years later, it is ‘Can I question?’ And today it is ‘Well I expect to be able to make my own decisions about these things.’ ”

The cultural shift towards independent, autonomous action and thought in the workplace has resulted in a conflict between employees and rigid, traditional organizations. The control mechanisms that many managers have previously relied on to achieve consistency in the quality of their products and services don’t mesh well with the mindset of young employees.

“It is a fundamental human instinct to be able to influence what is going on around you,” McCarthy said. “As we have given younger people more and more authority, power and influence, that comes bang-up against traditional hierarchical organizational structures.”

Although most signs point towards allowing both contractors and employees to work from home, McCarthy feels that approach is sometimes a ‘cop-out solution’. “It is doable, but it’s not necessarily a great idea,” he stated.

With conflicting research on the topic, it is inconclusive as to whether working from home increases productivity and has other benefits. So, how else can HR managers adapt to work with these autonomously-geared people? McCarthy told HRM that making the workplace a nice place to visit is something most employees would prefer. “If the culture is constructive you actually really enjoy being there, because you get to talk to people, you get to hear people’s stories – that is a fundamental human need.”

Shifting the focus towards the individuals in your workplace without viewing them through rigid systems is how McCarthy sees businesses attracting this new generation of workers. “An organisation either gets things done through people, or it gets things done through structures and systems ... if it gets things done through people, it is probably a better place to work.”

By allowing more autonomy in the workplace and honing in on the needs of the current generation, organisations will find themselves leading the pack. McCarthy feels the change is imminent and it is time organisations remember what the ‘h’ stands for in ‘human resources’. “HR has become too much about structures and systems and not enough about people,” he said.

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