The Concept Of "Office Freedom" And How It Fixes Age-Old Organizational Problems

Giving people community tables instead of cubicles is not the answer to baffling management conundrums. Giving your employees real "office freedom," on the other hand, is.

Traditional work environments are being challenged. Many managers are taking notice and are trying to change with the times. But, what they need to understand is that it’s employees’ motivations that are changing. In order to speak to these new motivations, the deep-rooted culture of the traditional corporate world must evolve.

A friend who has worked in finance for 13 years recently told me that the investment firm she works for went cubicle-free. The higher-ups installed community-style tables in an effort to modernize the workspace. But, instead of making their employees more satisfied, they totally missed the mark. Office morale is lower than ever. The employees feel ignored, like management has no clue what they want or need. As my friend explained, she and her colleagues want more than a change in office feng shui. They want management to confront the underlying issues that have gone unaddressed for years.

These traditional environments have been known to evoke principles that are decades old, such as the Peter Principle, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and groupthink. (Don’t recognize these? Read on, you may not recognize the issues by name, but you surely will in explanation.) How do we create a solution for these age-old problems? We can start to solve them with a shift in mindset towards work. And, that shift can start with office freedom. Here’s how office freedom can be a part of abolishing these principles and theories that have been deeply rooted in traditional offices for decades.

Peter Principle
The Peter Principle is a situation in which employees rise in the organizational hierarchy until they reach a level of incompetence, where they remain. This principle rewards competency with promotions, but eventually it works toward the employees’ detriment. When employees are less than competent in their role, they’re unable to have time to explore ideas and spend time thinking about how to excel—they’re just struggling to get by. A feeling of incompetence will lead to uninspired work and a deep association of stress and work, which so many of us are familiar with. People are stranded in jobs where they’re unsuccessful, stressed, and tired. It leaves employees doing a job that they’re not passionate about or even good at.

In nontraditional work environments, promotion is not the primary form of reward. Freedom is a reward in itself. Freedom is the end goal of most people. When employees are free, they don't need much more. Reward could mean working from a cafe, taking a two-hour break midday to work out, or maybe even taking a nap. And, most valuably, the greatest reward is having time to explore other passions through the benefit of managing one’s own schedule.

In addition to time freedom, managers can make an impact by learning individual motivations. That friend of mine in finance, she’s received quite a few promotions because her managers know her value but can sense she’s not fully satisfied. If they got to know her better, they’d realize that she’s a passionate writer, and she’s damn good at it. If they tapped into that skill and gave her time to work and write from home, she would feel a sense of loyalty to an organization that embraces her passion.

As for me, I’m a typical Gen Y-er. I’m motivated by constant feedback, both positive and negative. Tell me when I do something awesome and tell me when I need to challenge myself more. An entrepreneurial environment where I’m able to test ideas and experiment freely means the world to me—give me that and I’ll give you my all. To me, that means working from home, but it also means regular meetings with my bosses and having the opportunity to try out-of-the-box ideas, which I usually find myself testing after-hours—talk about a win-win.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect happens when underperforming employees have a false sense of superiority. In many organizations, people are too busy to critique and guide one another, especially those who show up often and on time. When employees see others getting by with minimal or no effort, they’re much less likely to give their all. For managers, it can be hard to pick out who’s just showing up and who’s putting in the most effort.

In non-traditional work environments where employees are given more power through a less structured environment—no more 9 to 5—they’re less likely to be able to just "get by." When value is not longer measured in face time, but is calculated by quality work and impact, those who aren’t pulling their weight become obvious. Allowing employees to work out of the office is a great way to find gems and recognize them throughout the organization.

When employees are more in control of their own time, managers can also use non-traditional motivational tactics versus micromanaging or manipulating through fear. In Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human, Pink explains his research on self-talk. Telling ourselves we aren’t good enough is never a great motivator. Pumping ourselves up with positive talk may make us feel competent and ready. But, asking interrogative questions about our performance can make all the difference. Can I do this? Can I inspire this audience? Can I pull this project off?

As managers, by planting these questions, we instigate a personal challenge. Get employees to start asking themselves: What can I make happen by the end of the week? What impact can I have on this organization?

Groupthink
Groupthink is the psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people. It’s when the desire for conformity in the group results in an unchallenged outcome.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we agree with something that we may typically challenge. People within an organization try to minimize conflict and reach a decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by protecting themselves from criticism from the group as a whole. Offices are breeding grounds for this behavior. Close quarters also easily breed emotion. Emotions are contagious; therefore decisions can start to be made based on those emotions.

When I worked for a startup we would get an idea. We’d get amped up and start to talk about how it might play out, sometimes totally jumping the gun. Then, we’d call our creative director, who worked remotely a few hours away. We’d pitch the idea and wait for his response on the other end of the line. This was the beginning of many heated discussions. But, it probably saved us a lot of time and money. While he could most certainly feel our excited energy, he wasn’t there to catch the bug. He could see the idea just a little bit more objectively and offer a fresh perspective.

These are just three of many age-old problems that occur in organizations. Office freedom may not be the solution for everything, but it can become a value for employees that is so strong that they feel privileged to have their jobs every day. Create an organization where passion, purpose, freedom, and responsibility all work together. It’s easy to say that you have this type of environment, but it takes care and a deep dedication to employee happiness and success to really make it happen—a lot more than fancy community-style tables.

Let go, give employees more freedom, rights, and responsibilities, and see what the people you hired are capable of.

[Image: Flickr user Ram Yoga]

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