For the majority of our contemporary commercial history, operations have been geared toward a top-down hierarchy. Employees have been expected to follow the directions and imperatives laid out by their immediate supervisors, and so it goes up the ladder until the executive or ownership level. However, in the last few decades, it has gradually become more accepted that this is not the optimum environment for productivity. It creates a rigid workspace in which employees rarely achieve any kind of satisfaction and they are not given room to apply their perspectives in innovative ways.
Reluctance to give workers entirely free reign over operations is understandable to an extent — there certainly needs to be an element of guidance to reach company goals. However, one solution is to focus on employee empowerment. This revolves around processes providing workers with a level of autonomy in their roles to encourage them to adopt practices that result in greater productivity.
One of the reasons empowerment can have an impact on productivity is because employees feel more in the loop about their work. Tasks aren’t just being dictated to them; their insights and experiences really matter to the company. That said, autonomy on its own doesn’t help workers feel connected to a business. As with many actions that improve productivity, a key to sustainable and effective empowerment is a solid communication strategy.
You have to find a balance between providing autonomy and helping your workers feel supported. After all, there’s a difference between offering freedom and giving your employees the impression they’re out on their own. This is especially true when you have remote workers, as there are already communications challenges in place that can be exacerbated if you don’t put effort into building a strong strategy. Consider what elements of communication are conducive to empowerment. Do staff have access to tools that connect them with management and each other regardless of time zone and schedule? Are the tone, software, and methods utilized more in keeping with collaboration rather than dictation?
Creating an empowerment-focused approach to communication also requires a commitment to openness. This would be important in any setting, but when your employees have autonomy, maintaining an open dialogue aids clarity and reduces the scope for problems to fester. Set expectations for this from the beginning and clarify directly with your workers and in the employee handbook how vital this is to an empowered workplace. Lead by example here and talk about the mistakes you make and the challenges you have. This will help workers to understand how issues can be discussed without fear of reprisals and focus on finding solutions as a team.
There are various ways you can utilize your current resources to improve your company’s overall productivity. Restructuring operations to improve efficiency, putting in place an employee incentive scheme, and improving workplace conditions all play a part in this. However, a form of empowerment that tends to have a direct influence on how productive workers are is investing in their professional development. In essence, this gives them the tools and insights they need to make better and more innovative decisions for the benefit of your business.
Your first step is to create a formalized talent development program geared toward leadership. Work with your human resources (HR) department to design a path providing workers with the skills to progress toward management and understand how to approach their responsibilities. This isn’t just designed to help them achieve promotions, it also allows them to build the mindset and abilities to make better day-to-day decisions when operating independently in an empowered workplace. In many ways, autonomous workers are leaders of their own section of the business, so it’s vital to give them the skills to succeed here.
Don’t just focus on internal sources of development, either. A key part of empowerment is remembering that workers have their own ambitions and priorities — helping them to pursue these improves satisfaction and develops diverse skill sets. It also impacts turnover; one recent report found 94% of employees stated they’d stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning. Regularly take time to talk to your workers about their goals and consider how you can support them.
Empowerment isn’t about paying a certain amount of lip service to employee independence. One of the worst mistakes you can make is approaching the matter by just giving the impression of autonomy. This doesn’t tend to result in a great deal of improved productivity as there isn’t any authentic foundation supporting it. As such, an important element of effective empowerment is reinforcing your workers’ sense of ownership of the business.
This concept tends to elicit resistance from some business leaders, as they are reluctant to relinquish the idea they have ultimate control over the company. Yet, this in itself is an illusion — regardless of the ideas of leaders, without the input of committed employees, a business will fall flat. You need to embrace the fact you need your workers as much as (if not more than) they need you. Start to build a culture in which employees are not just working for the company but meaningfully contributing to and benefiting from its success.
This could include measures as simple as making certain workers of all levels have some form of input into the direction of the company. Communicate changes and plans to them, invite feedback and questions that will be addressed at an executive level — and reward this. Indeed, it can be wise to include stock ownership and profit-sharing as part of standard worker benefits, rising with years of service or progression. These give tangible forms of ownership that also incentivize workers to be more productive and more considerate about their activities.
Employee empowerment is increasingly being recognized as a route to improving productivity. This is largely because the elements of empowerment keep workers more connected to the business and its success. With a commitment to improving communication, investing in development, and reinforcing employee ownership, your company can start to reap the benefits that come from this meaningful collaboration with workers.
By Indiana Lee, BOSS contributor