Employee Autonomy: An Empirically Driven Approach to Improving Productivity and Pro-Social Behavior in the Workplace

By: Amanda Dial

When we think of the traditional workplace, it is not uncommon to imagine a scene like this: employees drone in the office, a mighty stack of papers and assignments greets them at their desk, the monotonous lull of copy machines and phone calls hangs heavy in the air. It is a bleak picture that seems, in every sense, quite contrary to our quintessentially American conception of freedom and happiness. But what if it could be different?     

Economics professor Dr. Subha Mani’s research, supported by a fellowship grant from the Institute of Humane Studies, seeks to answer this question and others by examining the value of employee autonomy in the workplace. Her fundamental premise rests on our innate desire for choice: We enact our preferences when we make decisions for ourselves and tend to show commitment to what we choose. When employers limit employee choice in the workplace, they foster an environment that discourages creativity and engagement. In such an environment, workers feel unmotivated, and because workers control the effort they put into their tasks, employer well-being also suffers from the resulting productivity decline. Giving employees a choice over their tasks can positively influence productivity, prosocial behavior and job satisfaction. The result is a work environment conducive to the success and happiness of all parties, employee and employer alike.     

Dr. Mani’s dedication to rigorous, empirical evidence to drive policy decisions influenced her research initiative’s design. She is running a range of lab experiments through five different treatment sessions that vary the presentation of autonomy to the employee. Dr. Mani exposes participants to different levels of autonomy: full autonomy, no autonomy and limited autonomy. For instance, in the majority voting treatment, participants in the study vote on their desired tasks, and the majority vote is selected for the real-effort task. In this treatment, autonomy is present, but only through the voting mechanism. On the other hand, in the self-selection treatment, participants get to choose exactly what task they do — they get full autonomy. During the real-effort task stage, participants complete their tasks, and Dr. Mani and her research team collect data on their engagement levels. In an effort to encourage effort and increase the reliability of her data, participants in her study are incentivized or paid for their participation and performance.

Understandably, the state of the global health emergency has posed significant challenges for Dr. Mani and her research. Though she typically conducts her studies in person, she has shifted to phone surveys and Zoom experiments in small groups. However, she noted that there are drawbacks to these methods: Opposed to an in-person setting, attentiveness is difficult to control, making large experiments more complicated to run. Nevertheless, her perseverance is admirable — she maintains committed to empirically driven experiments and highlights their importance for guiding policymakers. Data helps us visualize what is going on, which allows policymakers to make informed policy responses. Despite the drawbacks, she stated that her Zoom experiments are running fairly well: Not only are they more cost-effective, but she can record the sessions and control attention by asking occasional “attention-check” questions. Dr. Mani further maintained that good things have come out of the obstacles of experimentation in light of the pandemic. Researchers are beginning to view methodologies that they previously did not give much importance or focus to (such as phone surveys, which can capture long-term impacts of treatments) in a new light. The virtual experiment space also breeds inclusiveness: At smaller schools with little to no access to laboratories, there are now more opportunities to run engaged and reliable experiments.

As her research on employee autonomy continues, Dr. Mani remains hopeful about its positive implications. How we get people to work together and contribute to public goods, or goods that help everyone, is a big challenge in society today. Recognizing how we ought to shape policy to engender the connections that make cooperation feasible plays a role in solving this problem. Dr. Mani’s research also speaks to the structure of the traditional corporate environment in which employees have a minimal say in decision making. Along these lines, companies have begun rethinking why there has been such a heavy concentration of wage growth among top executives while wage growth among employees has been relatively stagnant. Understanding the effects of worker autonomy can explain these trends and take the initiative to move away from less autonomous workplace environments, thereby increasing public good consumption and productivity and in turn promoting the welfare of everyone in the corporate hierarchical chain.

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