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How Much Freedom Should You Give Employees?

If you’ve never taken a tour of the Zappos office in Las Vegas, I highly recommend it. It’s an amazing glimpse into how a modern-day company operates and, of course, it’s an excuse to go to Vegas.

Zappos is one of the largest online sellers of shoes. They also sell clothing, but their claim to fame is their shoes. Well, kind of. Actually, their claim to fame is their culture and, subsequently, their customer service.

If you take a tour of their headquarters, what immediately jumps out at you is that the employees of Zappos are free to express themselves. Whether it’s making the decision to send flowers to a customer without asking for permission, or decorating their workspace like a Mardi Gras float, employees have free reign.

In fact, in 2013, CEO Tony Hsieh announced that the company was going to restructure into a holacracy — a corporate structure that removes the typical hierarchy found in most organizations. Authority and decision-making power reside within self-organizing teams.

So, at Zappos, employees clearly have a high level of freedom.

But is that how your company should operate? Depending on the organization, you might get a chuckle out of envisioning your workplace operating like Zappos. Yet, in today’s world, it’s a serious question. You employees may be loyal, heads-down team members, but they aren’t blind to the way the modern workplace is transforming.

Should your employees have more freedom? As you might expect, the answer is, “Maybe; maybe not.” Here’s why.

Company structure is a process

Let’s say that one day you read an article about holacracies. You think giving your staff the freedom to form groups and make highly strategic decisions is a great idea. You don’t have all the answers. Why not count on the knowledge, experience, and creativity of your employees to make a go of it? It makes perfect sense, right?

Well, if you came in the next day and announced that the company was switching to a holacracy format, you had better be prepared. I’m not saying that your employees will immediately begin looting the supply cabinet, but they might experience a mild freakout, because they won’t know what to do.

You can’t shift from running a department or business the same way for years, then expect everyone to be on board with a complete shift in how the company operates. If you’ve ever been through a reorganization, multiply the fear and confusion you experienced by about 100. That’s what you can expect.

However, even if you’ve had a culture that isn’t overly progressive, you can still move in the direction of providing more freedom. You’ll just have to do it slowly, over time.

Your industry matters

There are certain industries in which a more open-minded environment works phenomenally well. One of these is software. And one of the most progressive and successful software companies of all is Google.

Google is at the pinnacle of creating an environment in which people have a lot of freedom. For instance, employees are free to use 20% of their time to work on any Google-related project they want. Some of Google’s best ideas, such as Gmail, came out of this “free” time.

Another software company at the forefront of employee freedom is 37 Signals. They make a popular project management tool called Basecamp. If you are a developer or designer at 37 Signals, you have the freedom to work the hours you want to work. If you hit your stride at 3 am, then you are free to work overnight. If you want to take a nap in the afternoon, no problem. As long as your work is getting done, you can work at any time and anywhere you like. It’s similar to the concept of the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), popularized by its adoption by Best Buy corporate.

Other industries simply can’t provide the freedom of a Google or 37 Signals. For example, you probably won’t find people decorating their cubes in a zombie motif in a federal government agency. Or, if you operate in an industry in which a high level of professionalism or compliance is necessary  financial services and accounting are examples  you might not find the level of freedom you’d find in a hip software company. There’s no doubt that companies in these industries can, and oftentimes do, have excellent employee perks, but the level of freedom can be limited.

Some employees are just not interested

While some people get jazzed about having the ability to really express who they are, others have little interest in it. Everyone wants to be heard, acknowledged, and to feel important. But, having the freedom to decorate their workspace in any funky way they like just isn’t that important to them. They’re content to have a couple pictures of family or friends sitting on their desks. Going wild for them might mean the addition of a Dwight Schrute bobblehead.

Autonomy is no different. Some people love to have the leeway to make important decisions on their own. But others operate better in an environment in which their boundaries are well-defined.

This is critical to understand, especially if your intention is to evolve to a more progressive culture. It’s important because your organization has naturally attracted individuals who work well within your culture and environment. If you adjust your culture, you may have valuable employees who no longer fit.

So, understand that there will always be people who love the idea of having a more open, expressive setting. But, there will also always be those who don’t have much interest in it.

The bottom line

So, should you or should you not give your employees more freedom? It’s an interesting question, and it’s one only you can answer. But, before you send that email out announcing the cube-decorating contest or asking for employee input on the company’s strategic plan, consider the following: Not all cultures are ready to become more progressive overnight.

Changes should be introduced slowly, over time. And, even if you do want to allow more expression and autonomy, it may not be in the best interest of your company, especially if you operate in a more conservative industry, or are subject to legal compliance.

Finally, if you do decide to make adjustments to allow for more employee freedom, be aware that not all employees will be overjoyed with the changes. You know your company best, so be sure to thoroughly evaluate the impact more freedom will have on your employees’ productivity, job satisfaction, and creativity.