Ability to work independently: a guide for managers

The new normal lies in the ability to work independently. The freedom will bring challenges for managers and co-workers. This blog provides a framework to address these challenges.

Ability to work independently

Have you ever seen one of the following job description criteria?

  • You have demonstrated ability to work independently.
  • You have to be able to work without supervision.
  • It would help if you could work independently and as a member of a team.

As an introvert, this requirement always sounds to me like heaven on earth. Independence is what makes me thrive. Does working independently really exist in a regular job? And how do managers react to employees that ask for freedom? Unfortunately, my experience is not overwhelmingly positive.

Why do managers get the ability to work independently so wrong?

A few years ago, I was involved in a company with significant turnover in human resources. Management brought consultants onboard to diagnose the problem at hand. The fact is, the company went through various growth stages from start-up to operations across the globe. In these growth phases, it is natural to see faces come and go. Therefore, you need to hire the right people for the current period of the company. Or, managers need to help employees through the transitions.

In the early start-up phase, employees love the independence of the environment. As the company grows, it introduces more structure and process. And, hire more managers to keep employees focused and achieve the desired growth trajectory. With this transition, you will find a culture change and employees lose the freedom to work independently.

The question I asked myself at that point was “why do managers get it so wrong so often?”

Historically, for most managers, giving independence to employees is a challenge. These challenges stem from:

  • the inability to trust people and possible insecurities;
  • providing insufficient goals and objectives, with the expected key result unclear;
  • not creating room for failure and a learning environment, and;
  • the selection of people that can’t work independently and don’t get energised doing it.

It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Steve Jobs

The future lies in the ability to work independently.

In 2017 Linkedin CEO Jeff Weiner proclaimed that one of the trends that will impact the future workforce is independent workers. The three reasons he identified for this statement is:

  • The rise of millennials: According to Weiner, data shows that millennials are hungry for independence. A study showed that 71% of millennials are earning more by working independently.
  • Growth in the online marketplace: The gig economies demand more independent workers. Think Airbnb, Uber and Instacart, they all require a workforce with the ability to work independently. That said, a UK study revealed that 59% of the gig economy is knowledge and professional workers and only 16% drivers and delivery workers.
  • Cost efficiency: Cost saving is a massive driver for companies to depend more on peoples ability to work independently.

The sweet spot of working independently

In truth, employees want meaningful work. They need a driving purpose that will bring passion into their 9 to 5 activities. And, according to a Harvard Business Review article, the ability to work independently is providing just that:

  • 90% of independent consultants reported that they are satisfied in their way of working. They are even more content with their current status than regular employees.
  • They are more productive, meeting their target more regularly in less time.
  • 91% says they are offering more value for the client because of a higher quality of work. 
  • It provides a more flexible work-life balance, getting access to the best of both worlds.

Imagine achieving this at work. Helping employees working more independently will create happy and productive workers.

My ability to work independently hypothesis

Does working independent work for everybody? Probably not. You will know when you are out of balance. You will be irritated, frustrated and even agitated with your situation. Lately, I’ve been talking to several people working from home. For all of them, it is new, for some challenging and some not.

There is a continuum from working entirely independent to working day in and day out in a team. Most people move around this line from day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour. 

Then, working like this can either energise you or tap a lot of energy from you. Or you may find to be somewhere in-between. I define this the stimulus continuum.

These two continuums are forming the axes of what I call the Independence Matrix.

The Independence Matrix

The ability to work independently matrix

I am loosely defining four states in which a person can find themselves when working. The fact is many of us will lean the one way or the other, but a large number will also fall somewhere in the middle. More importantly, you should be able to identify your current state, and managers the state of employees. 

Lower Left State: The Nursery

Interacting the whole day with a team is draining your energy. Meeting-after-meeting the entire day make you scream. The fact is, you can’t wait to go for a long walk or run on your own. However, the amount of energy these activities tap from you may differ from person to person. Hence, introverts may experience this quite often. You may feel like being caught in a nursery full of babies, running from the one to the other.

If you find yourself frequently in this state, find time in your workday for alone-time, independent work. As a manager, be on the lookout for co-workers stuck in this situation. Schedule some independent work for them.

Lower Right State: The Morgue

People that “hate their own company” don’t like to operate in this state. They don’t want to be the only person on a project. If they can’t bounce challenges with co-workers, they get frustrated. Frequent discussions help them to think out loud. For people in this state, it may feel as if they are working in a mortuary.

If you are afraid to get caught in this situation, your ability to work independently is low. Try to organise your working day to have people close with which you can talk. Managers must also assist people that hate working in these conditions with a support structure to help them through the “dead times”. 

Upper Left State: The Cafe

People that get energy from working in a team love being in this state. Since they are talkative, action-oriented, enthusiastic and out-going, they can’t wait for the next meeting or group activity. They are probably extroverts. And working in a cafe is the best imaginable situation.

For them, this state is the sweet spot. On the negative side, these employees may get distracted easily and do not like to spend long periods alone. Try not to isolate them. If you need to, check on them regularly. But most importantly, set clear objectives and let them focus on a goal.

Upper Right State: The Library

People in this state flourish when working independently. They are thoughtful individuals that are self-sufficient and don’t need a lot of people around them to get through the day. Freedom and solitude make them feel empowered. They can’t imagine anything better than working in a library the whole day.

Managers must use co-workers that like to operate in under these conditions to their advantage. Use them on projects and tasks that require a lot of independent work with long-term focusing.

The new normal: working independently

The fact is, and according to Jeff Weiner, we will see a lot of people operating in the upper right state of the Independence Matrix in the future. 

Companies require managers that can train, coach and mentor employees. Consequently, they must be able to translate the company’s purpose and goals into clear objectives and define results for each employee. They need to empower the employees and stimulate the ability to work independently. Above all, they need to enable those employees that thrive in the upper left state to flourish in the top right state as well. More importantly, you need to keep them from falling into the two lower states. 

Bottom line: the future belongs to smart people with the ability to work independently, and they need confident managers willing to expose vulnerabilities.

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