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Future challenges in knowledge work: The push and pull of creating job autonomy

With an increase in automation and the continuous decrease of manual work, our future workforce will be more and more composed of knowledge workers. But what do these future changes around knowledge work imply for organisations and the management of the future workforce?

In a recent article in the academic journal Group & Organization Management, Claus Langfred and Kevin Rockmann (2016) described how the workforce of the future will increasingly request autonomy at work in order to work effectively.

What is job autonomy?

Job autonomy constitutes one of the core job characteristics and is defined as

“the amount of freedom and independence an individual has in terms of carrying out his or her work assignment”, or “the extent to which a job allows freedom, independence, and discretion to schedule work, make decisions, and choose the methods used to perform tasks” (Morgeson & Humphrey, 2005, p. 1323).

How does autonomy relate to work design?

Autonomy appears as a core construct in the work design models that focus on motivational task characteristics, such as the Job Characteristic Model (Hackman & Oldhman), Job Demands-Control (Karasek, 1979) or the Job Demands-Resource Model (Bakker & Demerouti, 2017).

What is so challenging about designing work that is characterised by job autonomy?

The authors reflect on how decades of research on work design theory have demonstrated how job autonomy and job discretion result in workers that are more satisfied, motivated and well-equipped to deal with uncertainty. At the same time, they laid out how organisations, and in particular managers, struggle to give workers autonomy, because "organising" by definition implies exerting control and coordinating workers. That is, organisations are faced with incompatible pressures:

On the one hand, they need to grant workers autonomy and decision latitude when carrying out their activities. On the other hand, the organisation is pressured to “organise” work, to coordinate workers, to formalise, and to standardise tasks. Langfred and Rockmann (2016) described how the bottom-up need for autonomy and the top-down need for control create a paradoxical tension.

An organisational example of the push and pull of autonomy

To illustrate this tension, they provided an example of teleworking in the federal government: In 2010, the Telework Enhancement Act allowed workers in governmental bodies more freedom (hence: autonomy) to carry out work-related activities outside of their work place. In essence, this act was intended to increase workers autonomy and flexibility. However, this “push” towards more autonomy also resulted in a “pull” towards more control. For example, some organisations issued teleworking policies stressing that “telework is work time (hours of duty) and is not to be used for any purposes other than official duties” (GSA, 2011).

Overall, these rule-based policies that focused on control and adherence corroborated the idea of giving workers more flexibility.

I highly enjoyed reading the conceptual article from Langfred and Rockmann (2016) because it seems relevant both from a practical and theoretical point of view. For example, within one of our research streams in the Centre for Transformative Work Design, we are interested how work design can contribute towards designing teams or organisations that can both operate with flexibility (that is, that are adaptive) but also coordination (Research Stream 3). The article describes these tensions and points out how they emerge when taking into account the multiple levels of organisations, that is, not only focusing on individual workers, but also teams, and organisations.

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