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10 ways to offer the time autonomy employees crave

Leaders have many ways they can give employees more time autonomy by limiting meetings, offering flexible hours and time banking, writes Julie Winkle Giulioni.

5 min read


time autonomy

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The past several years have inspired a large portion of the workforce to explore a different relationship with their work — one that supports broader life priorities. According to James Neave, Head of Data Science at Adzuna (a job search engine), this isn’t a blip but a legitimate shift in sentiment. He points to TikTok’s “5 to 9 before 9 to 5” trend, with users waking up at 5 a.m. to do things like working out, food preparation, journaling and meditating well before their workdays begin as evidence of today’s employees’ commitment to finding the time to enjoy life beyond their jobs.

While it would be easy to pass this off as a Generation Z phenomenon, Neave suggests that the desire for time autonomy is age-agnostic. While the motivations may differ, employees across the generational spectrum want more control over the hours of their day. Gen Z seeks out flexibility for lifestyle purposes. At the same time, Gen X and older employees want to leverage time for greater work-life balance, save commute time and address child care issues.

Recognizing the trend, many organizations are leaning into this need, finding ways to offer the time autonomy that their employees crave. According to Neave, these organizations are enjoying a range of important benefits — from the ease of hiring, greater employee happiness and productivity, enhanced loyalty and reduced churn of talent.

Of course, all of this is at odds with the return to work mandates issued by many organizations (and interpreted by employees as a power play and vote of no trust according to MyPerfectResume’s 2024 RTO Survey.) 

It’s no wonder that leaders feel impotent, stuck between a rock (employees’ desire for greater flexibility around the use of their time) and a hard place (organizational directives that undermine this need.) You may not be able to offer structural solutions to this dilemma. Still, there are plenty of actions that fall within a leader’s purview that can demonstrate understanding and care — and provide at least some of the time autonomy people crave. Consider this menu of 10 possible approaches:

  1. Flexible hours: Sure, you can’t establish a 4-day workweek, but where do you have a little wiggle room? Must employees arrive at an appointed time? If they came in earlier or later, could their hours shift accordingly? If they needed to step away for a few hours mid-day, could they stay later or complete their work in the evening or over the weekend? Allowing these sorts of simple choices gives employees the greater sense of control they’re looking for.
  2. Outcomes-based management:  At the end of the day, success depends more upon the results delivered than the time invested. That’s why, in some workplaces, leaders can shift from watching the clock to watching the outcomes. When expectations are clear, employees are free to use their time as they see fit – just as long as quality work gets done.
  3. Self-established deadlines: Depending upon the nature of the work, allowing employees to set their deadlines and milestones offers a greater degree of flexibility. It lets employees leverage their time and energy cycles in a way that serves them and provides a greater sense of control.
  4. Meeting-free days: Identifying one day each week or month that is void of meetings not only allows people to engage in deep work without interruptions; it’s also a way of offering the experience of autonomy without a change to working hours.
  5. Email-free hours: This operates much like meeting-free days in that blocks of time exist to give employees the freedom to use their time as they see fit.
  6. Asynchronous communication norms and practices: Real-time communication pressures people for immediate responses, reducing their sense of time autonomy. While some communication is urgent and requires an immediate response, much is not. Establishing asynchronous systems acknowledges this and lets employees respond in their own time.
  7. Time banking: If you’re able to informally keep track of the extra time your team puts in, you may be able to give it back to them at their discretion. Allowing people to bank hours that they can use later recognizes their ‘above and beyond’ efforts and contributes to a sense of autonomy.
  8. Technology/AI: Greater productivity can accelerate many tasks. So, offer the tools people need to get their work done fast and free up time for other priorities.
  9. Job sharing: Do you have a terrific team member who’s not able to work full-time due to other commitments? Find someone else in the same position and bring the two together as one. Needless to say, this requires organizational support as well as your attention to ensuring appropriate levels of accountability and production. But it’s an increasingly popular way to tap the talent you need by creating the employee experience some people want.
  10. Volunteering initiatives: While technically, this option doesn’t free up time, it does change the dynamics associated with that time by allowing employees to engage in different activities. Does your organization engage in community service projects? Are there internal initiatives? Do employee resource groups that people might join or lead exist? Carving time out of the regular grind for these sorts of activities can nourish the soul and offer an elevated experience of control.

The hands of the clock are ticking towards a more autonomous future. Leaders who align with the ‘times’ will use the tools and strategies within their control to help employees make their precious hours count — and, in the process, will build a magnetic and unbeatable culture where talent thrives.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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