Several studies have shown that the amount of control employees have over their job-related decisions can greatly affect their health, performance and stress levels. As far back as 1976, industrial psychologists Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham found that greater autonomy at work increased employees’ motivation, and this could be applied across the different sectors, from blue collar to professional.

Three years later, in 1979, researcher Robert Karasek found that employees working high-demand jobs who had little or no control over how their work was carried out experienced higher levels of exhaustion after work, sleeping problems, and even depression and anxiety. Workers who had greater control had significantly lower stress levels.

This research shows that employers can design processes that enhance employee control without sacrificing productivity and actually leading to enhanced output overall.

Notable companies are leading the way

Over the years, some notable companies have taken this on board and altered their working practices, including auto giant Ford Motor Company, which took on a team-based approach to manufacturing. Rather than simply following orders from a supervisor, employees are able to discuss parts with suppliers, find new and improved ways to run machinery, and take action to remove defects in products. Piloted in the 1990s, this devolution of leadership in specific areas was so successful, it became the new, company-wide approach.

The spread of telecommuting, also known as remote working, whereby an employee carries out their work outside the company offices and communicates online, has given great scope for employers to expand this approach towards autonomy at work. Telecommuting allows the worker to decide where, and sometimes when, to work.

Remote working increases productivity

In 1999, when telecommuting really started to take off, AT&T carried out a survey of managers to find out the impact it had on productivity. Despite business owners’ fears that telecommuting could hamper working relationships, 68 per cent of managers said they found their productivity had increased. Furthermore, 76 per cent were more content with their job, and 79 per cent were happier about their career in general. These results carried over into their home life too, with 79 per cent stating they were more satisfied with their family and personal life since working remotely.

Lower stress levels and increased motivation

More recent research by Dr Ravi Gajendran and David Harrison of Pennsylvania State University in 2007 analysed 46 studies on telecommuting and confirmed that the greater control it gave employees led to lower stress levels and increased motivation.

“Our results show that telecommuting has an overall beneficial effect because the arrangement provides employees with more control over how they do their work,” said Dr Gajendran.

All this research suggests that if leaders want to increase employee motivation and improve performance across the board, they should consider ‘loosening the reins’ and allowing their staff to take control of more job-related decisions.