Employees disengaged? It’s time to harness worker agency.
Employee engagement is not a new concept, but it’s become more important than ever before as organisations seek stability and growth in a tumultuous economy. Despite a plethora of research and strategies, employee engagement still wanes with organisations suffering the fall-out from the great resignation in the US, the rise in the gig economy and freelancers, and the quiet quitting phenomenon.
Harnessing and enhancing worker agency – giving employees real choice and control, not just the ability to voice opinions – is a long-term answer that can create an engaged, happy and productive workforce.
If your employees have checked out – physically or mentally – it’s time to examine how much you encourage worker agency, and what more you can do. To get you started, this post looks at what worker agency is, why it’s different to employee empowerment, the benefits of enhancing worker agency, and some practical steps to take now.
What is worker agency?
“When we make voluntary actions, we tend not to feel as though they simply happen to us, instead we feel as though we are in charge. A sense of agency refers to this feeling of being in the driving seat when it comes to our actions.” James W. Moore, Frontiers in Psychology
Worker agency is the extent to which employees can act independently and make their own free choices. It is the capacity to have control and influence over their work environment, including their roles, responsibilities, work hours, work location and ability to advocate for themselves, their ideas, and for others. According to Deloitte, worker agency spans multiple dimensions including:
- Self-determination – having meaningful choice and influence over the work they do (how, when and where) and how they grow in an organisation. The traditional corporate approach to dictate career paths or working locations, or deny flexible work, run counter to this need.
- Activism – being able to work in an organisation whose values, strategies, and actions reflect an individual’s own values. Toxic corporate cultures that disrespect employees based on their background or values, fail to promote diversity and inclusion or allow unethical behaviour is a leading reason for high staff attrition rates, even more so than pay.
What worker agency looks like in each organisation differs according to industry, nationality, and size, however, examples of what it looks like when they do, and don’t have agency are listed below.
Workers DO have agency when they:
- have control over HOW they do a task, even if they don’t have control of WHAT or WHY.
- feel confident suggesting new ways of doing things, try them out, and feel safe that there won’t be negative ramifications if it fails.
- have the choice to work remotely or flexibly.
- can set their own performance goals and objectives.
- can choose how they set up their own workspace.
- can choose benefits and incentives that are meaningful to them.
- can structure their own day to meet their energy ebbs and flows.
- can participate in forums and committees that hear their voices AND act on suggestions.
- feel comfortable taking ownership over a task or idea when it’s clear no one else will.
- feel ownership over their role or tasks to develop them as they see fit.
- have accountability for the outcomes of their decisions and actions.
Although employees might have the capacity to set goals or be innovative, without the power to act with authority, resources, tools, skills and self-confidence, their sense of agency will remain low. Additionally, academics have proposed that in addition to capability, people also need to have the option and power to make a different choice if necessary.
Workers DON’T have agency when they:
- have no input into the WHAT, WHERE, WHY, and HOW of their role or tasks, although in some roles this is unavoidable.
- are unable to suggest or try new ways of doing things, even if it improves profitability, safety, productivity, or quality.
- are unable to make requests for flexibility at work.
- are unable to voice their concerns about issues that impact their work e.g., well-being, furniture or equipment, safety, contracts, and working location.
- cannot work in a way that supports their physical and mental well-being.
- are not communicated with openly and regularly so don’t feel valued and may not have the knowledge to do their roles properly.
- aren’t given opportunities to progress and develop and/or can’t provide input into these matters.
Why we need to pay attention to worker agency
An organisational and leadership development consultancy in the US believes that: “If we feel a lack of agency on the job, it can show up as not being fully engaged, holding back on challenging assumptions, and withholding the important creativity and problem-solving abilities we were hired to demonstrate.” And its organisations who are missing out.
Our workforce now has more choices, and expectations of choice, than ever before in terms of whom they work for and how. Research by Deloitte has revealed that this is being shaped by:
- Labour shortages allowing workers to seek workplaces and work models that align with their personal and professional goals, lifestyle and values.
- A rising social consciousness fuelled by social media that has empowered individuals to stand up for their beliefs across a range of social, political, environmental and economic issues by choosing employers who align with their values.
- Technological advances that make it easier to work independently of an organisation, take control of their professional development and amplify their own personal message.
Today’s employees are now more willing to exert their agency and are consequently influencing the way employers shape their business culture, roles and messaging to attract, retain and employ talent. The great resignation in the US and the rise in freelancers are two stand-out examples of this.
The quiet quitting phenomenon is a demonstration of workers exercising personal agency to prevent burnout by doing the bare minimum that their role requires. In addition to taking their health into their own hands, Forbes points to employees failing to find purpose and meaning in their work as a key reason for the trend, reflecting a lack of agency.
What are the benefits of moving your business culture towards one of great employee agency?
Rather than trying to draw back control of the workplace and risk disengaging workers further, employers can choose to encourage worker agency and reap numerous benefits including:
- Higher levels employee engagement and job satisfaction
- Greater ownership over roles, projects, responsibilities
- Higher levels of productivity
- More creative and innovative solutions to problems
- Higher levels of staff retention
- Better decision-making from employees at all levels
- Better relationships between leaders and team members
- A more agile business that can respond to external challenges
- Improved mental and physical health
- A pathway towards a culture of collaboration
Despite this list, Deloitte’s 2023 Global Human Capital Trends Survey reported that 84% of business leaders agreed that worker agency is important or very important to the organisation’s success, but only 17% feel ready to act.
Practical steps to foster employee agency in your workplace
Harnessing worker agency isn’t about taking your hands off the wheel and letting employees do what they want. The type of work involved, quality assurance processes, safety procedures, business culture, social norms, the organisational structure and even individual self-belief will all influence how, and to what level, employees can use their agency.
With all that in mind, there are steps you can take to actively encourage worker agency:
- Communicate openly and regularly about issues that impact employee’s work and environment. A lack of sufficient, timely information often results in feelings of helplessness, poor decisions, and a lower quality of work. Open channels of communication with managers – face-to-face, messaging apps, email, collaboration software, video calls builds trust and allows employees to advocate for themselves.
- Commit to involving a diverse range of employees in formal decision-making processes. Not only that but meaningfully integrate their perspectives and ideas, communicating the results back to them. The quickest way to undermine your efforts to enhance worker agency is to listen without acting.
- Encourage initiative and proactivity. This could be finding a new tool to do their work better, a new process, initiating a project to fix a problem or workflow, or undertaking research to learn more or confirm a theory. Deloitte refer to this as the creator’s mindset – instilling an active desire to shape the organisation’s future.
- Support individual passion projects. Employees need to feel agency to act on causes close to them. Allow time for volunteering or leading a project or initiative with a charity, cause or project that aligns with both the worker and the organisation’s values.
- Allow autonomy in decision making. Trusting employees to make decisions without having to constantly refer to a manager is a crucial way to harness agency and respects the skills and expertise they were hired for.
- Focus on an organisation’s ‘why’ (reason for being) and build a shared purpose. Harvard researchers found that this does motivate people to act, particularly if it aligns with their values. When employees know the organisation’s ‘why’, they are more capable of making successful decisions autonomously that meet their employer’s goals.
- Give them choice over the wellbeing initiatives and reward programs they can access. Can your employees choose their own desk and chair? Can they decide which wellbeing initiatives best work for them? You could offer an allowance and allow employees to decide how it’s spent. Also, find out which performance incentives your workers want – e.g., bonuses or extra time off – and let them choose.
- Offer coaching for leaders and managers. Coaching is a time-consuming process, but it helps your leaders grow their confidence and agency by giving them guardrails or frameworks for making good decisions and taking accountability. Offering coaching training to managers and leaders can also help them coach others towards solving their own problems rather than taking a dictatorial approach.
Fostering employee agency is about embedding worker agency into processes to help build positive relationships and trust between employees and the organisation. It means respecting the skills and abilities of the people you’ve hired, acknowledging their individual differences, preferences and strengths, and allowing them to use the free will they already possess for the benefit of all involved.