When the pandemic hit and millions of white-collar workers suddenly began working from home, leaders expected productivity to plummet. So it came as a pleasant surprise when productivity, unshackled by the structures of the office, actually increased 5% in 2020, according to Bloomberg News.

Was that increase in productivity the result of a decrease in commutes from across town to across the hall?

Not exactly. Research shows a bigger factor at play: autonomy

A sense of control, or the power to decide, is a key human need. If you’ve ever tried to dress a two-year-old, you’ve observed the innate human craving for autonomy. If you haven’t, imagine a teary-eyed, red-faced little person angrily insisting on wearing their snow boots even though it’s 80 degrees outside. 

As we grow up, we eventually learn to dress ourselves appropriately, but we never outgrow that desire to exert control over our own lives. 

It’s no surprise, then, that when people feel like they have a choice in the way they carry out their work, studies show they’re more engaged, committed, and productive. According to neuroscientist Amy Arnsten, Ph.D. professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale University, even mild, uncontrollable stress can cause a decline in cognitive functions such as problem-solving. But when we even have “the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved.” 

Indeed, according to several studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychiatry, when employees in three commercial offices in the U.K. and the Netherlands were granted the freedom to decorate their austere workspaces, their productivity rose 25%. The researchers concluded that when employees are allowed to choose their own environment, they’re more productive. 

Knowing this, here are several ways leaders can increase workers’ sense of autonomy and maximize employee engagement and performance.

Value input from employees

When people have the chance to make small decisions, they feel like they have “skin in the game,” a feeling that keeps them engaged and striving toward a collective outcome. 

Take James, a supervisor at a device manufacturing company. James was tasked with developing packaging to protect a slimmed-down version of a device. Ordinarily, he would just have told his team how to proceed. But James recognized the opportunity to give them some unexpected autonomy, so instead of giving them instructions, he decided to ask for their input. 

Excited to contribute, the team tossed ideas around and James kept quiet until it was time to approve a plan.  Within a month of James asking his team to develop new packaging to protect the device, they had designed and tested new packaging that protected their product, and cost less to ship. With the autonomy to solve the problem, the team developed a solution that was better than what James would have instructed: reconfigured form inserts in a smaller, lighter box that saved on shipping costs.

By giving his employees a voice in the decision-making process, James reaped the benefits that researchers Rebecca Johannsen and Paul J. Zak observed when they examined the relationship between autonomy and productivity: employees and teams with a high sense of autonomy are more innovative due to their “greater persistence in overcoming problems for projects they control.” 

Let go and trust

Many leaders believe they have to micromanage their employees to ensure that work gets done. But that approach can backfire given the brain’s innate drive for autonomy. Leaders don’t have to choose between micromanaging and giving employees free rein. Instead, loosening the reins can create opportunities to rethink old ways of doing business.

Kelly, a manager at a call center, was intrigued when Michelle, one of her customer service reps, approached her with an idea to reduce high turnover rates. Michelle had a hunch that giving customer service reps a small amount of autonomy would help reduce turnover. 

Michelle noticed that one of the most frequent complaints among customer service reps was that they wasted much of their time calming down angry customers who had to go through a gauntlet of automated menus and long hold times, instead of spending their time resolving customers’ service issues. Day after day, customers loudly vented their frustrations to reps, who in turn, felt abused.  

To Michelle, it seemed as though customer service reps were held responsible for retaining customers without being given the authority to actually serve them. To change this, Kelly let Michelle run a 30-day experiment aimed at overhauling two practices reps hated: time limits and holds.

When the experiment began, customer service reps’ performance was judged by the number of calls they handle per shift (more is better) and the time each call took (less is better). This encouraged reps to end calls even when the customer’s problem wasn’t solved. When dissatisfied customers called back, they were often angrier and more abusive. 

So she proposed that her group be evaluated according to the number of times a customer called (fewer is better), rather than the amount of time spent per call and the number of calls answered in a shift. This way, taking more time to solve customer problems wouldn’t penalize reps. Kelly could easily track that per-customer metric with a report that showed how many times a customer called each day or week. 

Michelle also proposed that reps get to choose how long to put customers on hold. Reps could then decide whether to interrupt the hold music to describe the tests that were running, thank customers for their loyalty, or ask about local weather–anything to assure the customer that someone was working to help them.   

After experimenting with the new performance metrics and hold procedures, Kelly found the new procedures made customer service reps feel like they had the power to actually provide customer service. Call times doubled on average because reps could take the time to solve customers’ problems. And because customers’ problems were solved, call-backs were reduced by more than 80%. Upon seeing the results of Michelle’s experiment, Kelly couldn’t wait to roll out the new practices to all the customer service representatives she managed.

Choice within boundaries

Some leaders hear autonomy and think of anarchy. But as author Daniel H. Pink put it: “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” Overwhelmingly, research indicates that organizations benefit when their employees have at least some autonomy. 

That’s why it’s important for leaders to decide what employees can choose. If they have to be on a factory floor, for example, can they decide how to handle specific tasks? Perhaps they can choose to work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., or to work a month of six-day weeks and then take five consecutive days off. 

It’s worth figuring out where your employees can exercise freedom of choice, even in small measures. It could lead to big benefits.