The Talent500 Blog

4 Keys to balance autonomy and structure in a remote-first era

The word ‘autonomy’ is closely associated with the ideas of freedom and self-governance. Here’s a quick take on how to balance autonomy and structure in a remote-first era.

After two years of remote work being the status quo, employers appear to be now marshaling their troops back to the office. Simultaneously, a survey by Owl Labs revealed that 90% of workers agreed to being equally or more productive working remotely, with 84% positing that working remotely post-pandemic would make them happier. Some would even take a pay cut to retain remote work privileges. These apparently contrary work models seem to have fused into the hybrid work model. In fact, 74% of U.S. companies have or will implement such a model, according to Zippia.

However, how should a work model that includes remote workers function on the practical level? Should leaders relinquish most of their control over how their employees work? How can structured work have a place in a world where employee freedom is prized? Here’s a quick take on how to balance autonomy and structure in a remote-first era.

Autonomy drives employee experience

The word ‘autonomy’ is closely associated with the ideas of freedom and self-governance. In context, it means allowing the employee to determine when to work and where to work from.

As 2021 played out, one could quickly recognize different degrees of autonomy emerging from company policies:

  1. Low autonomy: In-office days and timings are fixed
  2. Moderate autonomy: Must fulfill certain amount of hours at office
  3. Complete autonomy: Can work at anywhere, including office, at any convenient time

Arguably, there are some businesses that require their employees to work at a low level of autonomy; a nurse, construction worker, or barista needs to be on-site. However, through the pandemic, a majority of organizations realized that they could be a lot more virtual than they imagined. Interestingly, Jabra’s Hybrid Ways of Working 2022 Global Report reveals that autonomy and employee experience enjoy a direct correlation.

What Jabra found was that the more autonomy you afford employees, the greater ‘belonging’, ‘motivation’, ‘productivity’, ‘trust in team’, ‘trust in leaders’, ‘impact’, ‘work-life balance’, and ‘mental health’ they report having.

Key #1: Employee autonomy is mutually beneficial

Autonomy is not inherently opposed to structure

As contradictory as it seems, employees require to be ‘controlled’ by some set of principles if they are to exercise their freedom effectively. It’s similar to having markings that define the length and breadth of a playground to enable play within. Without boundaries, autonomy breaks down.

In fact, a report highlights the impressive degree of autonomy Netflix affords its employees – they, not HR, get to decide about things like maternity leave and travel expenses. Amazingly, employees are willing to earn this autonomy by digging into the company’s foundational documents and aligning their vision with that of the organization.

The report also chronicles Alaska Airlines’ grappling with the issue of how much freedom in decision-making to offers its frontline workers. After meandering through periods of freedom and then micromanagement, the airlines leaned towards autonomy, but one that rests on “well-understood limits”.

The moral these stories teach is that certain principles need to form the basis for autonomy, if autonomous decisions are to safeguard the company as a whole. This could play out in the form of:

  • Vision and goals of the company
  • Rules pertaining to work ethic
  • Broad guidelines for employee behavior and attitudes
  • Norms for meeting deadlines
  • Channels for offering and receiving feedback
  • Training sessions that illustrate good use of autonomous decision-making

Key #2: Autonomy requires some structure and alignment of principles

Transitioning towards the right blend

The future of work is hybrid – but how will it be structured?

Google proposes a flexible work model, wherein its employees come to the office about 3 days per week. “Since in-office time will be focused on collaboration, your product areas and functions will help decide which days teams will come together in the office”, Google’s message to its employees reads. Google also envisions a workforce wherein 60% come to the office a few days a week, 20% work in new locations, and 20% work from home.

Kissflow’s approach is slightly different than that of Google’s. Its REMOTE+ model proposes teams choose between working in-office or remotely. However, every team must work in-office for one week in a month. Kissflow would generously provide accommodation for employees who need to travel for the week of in-office work. To create cross-team bonds and interactions, Kissflow plans monthly meet-ups, quarterly conferences, and offsite trips!

So, is the right blend of autonomy and structure expressed in a hybrid model simply a matter of picking policies that seem attractive? One must search deeper.

Having the right employees

Kissflow is intelligent when it includes in its REMOTE+ model the following line: “We will make a conscious effort to hire employees who thrive in a remote work environment”. The key is to have employees who can deliver when deprived of the social support, structure, and facilities the office offers. So, you want employees who can be self-disciplined when alone, but generous in understanding the organization’s needs for in-person work as well.

Making the right organizational changes

Real estate commitments are a solid reason organizations may be reluctant to divest itself of the control it has over where its employees work. After all, if it is locked into a long-term lease, it may not be able to funnel those finances into improving remote work infrastructure. Another issue is that of employees whose role it was to supervise others. Now, such a role may not be needed; or if it is, it will take added effort.

Navigating such issues is time-consuming, but as you do so, expect your hybrid work model to emerge refined.

Key #3: Achieving the right blend is a process. It demands policy, workforce and organizational tweaks.

Making your hybrid work model viable

Investing in remote gear

When remote work hit the world, many employees made it possible with their own finances. Data from SHRM reveals that 51% percent of remote workers shelled out $100–499 on equipment or furniture. Moreover, 61% did so out of pocket. The major issue here is that such employees lose their sense of belonging with their company. Investing in your employee’s tech gear is a way of saying, “we want you to be autonomous, and we are with you wherever you choose to work”.

Using the right collaboration tools

A 2021 Gartner survey revealed that ~80% of employees used collaboration tools in 2021. The figure hovered around 50% in 2019. Such tools are imperative to sustaining a workforce that’s connected more in the cloud than at the office. Some of the best out there include:

  1. – Project management
  2. Zoom – Video conferencing
  3. Trello – Kanban boards
  4. Slack – Team communications
  5. InVision – Design collaboration & digital whiteboard
  6. Dashlane – Password manager
  7. GSuite – Office suite 


Key #4: Investment in home and office makes remote and structured work possible

Building the office of the future

Since structured work in the office will be highly intentional, companies need to create spaces that prioritize focused work alongside spaces that promote collaboration. Some ideas from leading tech firms around the world include:

  1. Conference rooms with large screens installed at eye level: this helps with inclusivity in videoconferencing
  2. Café-style seating and wraparound terraces: for an experience similar to home or remote-work settings
  3. Multipurpose areas – to enable collaboration and accommodate employees when many turn up
  4. Private pods with soundproofing – for focused work that may include video calls

These strategies are sure to help you strike the right balance between autonomy and structure. If you are on the hunt for remote-ready candidates, look no further than Talent500. We use AI-powered algorithms to assess profiles across 100’s of parameters and offer access to pre-vetted talent that’s been through comprehensive skill interviews. To build a remote-first or global workforce, book a consultation with T500 today.


Ashwin Kasturirangan

Ashwin Kasturirangan

Entrepreneur & strategy consultant with experience in building & scaling up new businesses and executing large-scale complex cross-functional projects.

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