How to give your employees more freedom, without losing control

Employee freedom

“Business is way more successful when you do your thing and you have a good time. Throw out the old business plan and write a bucket list, and just use business as your vehicle to get you there”.

These are the radical words of Jack Hubbard, founder of Propellernet, a search marketing agency which was voted the Best Place to Work in the UK 2013 and the Top 25 of the Best Places to Work in Europe in 2014 by the Great Places to Work Institute and The Guardian.

Hubbard claims his business plan is to make everyone’s dreams come true. “I believe people should be accounted for as assets who appreciate in value over time as they develop relationships, goodwill, knowledge and ideas. The more a company invests in each person, the more of themselves they invest into the company and the more valuable they become as an asset,” he explains. “Financial reward is an important but small part of investing in people. People need to rest, to learn, to be inspired, to be challenged and to grow.”

So Propellernet has its very own ‘Dream Machine’; a giant yellow 80’s bubble gum dispenser, which houses the dreams of its employees. Every time the company hits a big target or milestone, a ball is released and someone’s dream comes true. To date, these have included the trip of a lifetime to the World Cup in Brazil, motor biking across Africa, being given the time to create a sci-fi-rock-opera, through to arranging a sabbatical on safari in Namibia.

Propellernet dream machine

Additionally 45% of Propellernet’s workforce are parents, and the company takes great effort to give these members of staff the freedom to juggle their responsibilities, at home and at work. A quarter of the company work a mixture of part time on three or four days a week, some do shorter working days over the full week, while others opt for four longer days over the five day week or variable mornings or afternoons at home. Maybe it’s no surprise that Propellernet’s staff turnover is less than 10% (with its nearest competitor being around 30%).

Google is another business that has prioritised employee freedom over more traditional business wisdom. Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on a project of their choosing. “It means you can attract and attain some amazing people”, says Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google. “People who are exceptional and motivated, and who are driven beyond a good job and a paycheck.” Google is in fourth place on the US Fortune ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list.

For some, granting employees a fifth of their working week to something loosely defined as “innovation” may seem a bit of a gamble. How do you grant so much freedom, without things spiralling out of control?

“Each of us taking personal responsibility, makes flexibility work. We have a set of values, but also a set of behaviours that work well for us,” explains Nikki Gatenby, Managing Director of Propellernet. “This is not about employer – employee relations. This is human to human care and attention.” Propellernet, much like Google, tries to bill out only 80% of its time to clients, leaving the remaining 20% for learning, sharing, reading books or going to events.

If keeping track of the 20% of time is problematic, take a leaf out of Citrix’s book and use a programme such as 15Five reporting to keep conversation open and see what is currently mattering most to employees. By engaging in meaningful questions with team members on a weekly basis, it can help managers to feel like they can let go a little, while encouraging staff to be accountable for how their time is being spent. The weekly ritual also helps to bond teams, even across different towns and cities.

The Virgin Group is another company which believes in giving its employees the same freedoms as senior managers, and according to Sir Richard Branson, this often enables his businesses to take on projects that other brands can’t. One specific area where Virgin asks many of its employees to make their own decisions is short-term profit. “We focus less on this metric than most companies do” says Branson. “This policy also helps our employees to succeed because they can pursue their passions…Our employees love what they do and throw themselves into the work, so they achieve much more than anyone would expect.”

There is growing evidence that suggests employees who exercise autonomy and freedom regularly at work are happier and more productive. Rapidly growing start-up, Bellhops, which contracts local college students for small-scale moving jobs, is another business to base its success on the “autonomy principle”. The company has grown from 2,000 to 10,000 employees in just one year. Bellhops gives employees the freedom to set their own schedule and level of responsibility. They decide who they work with, and how much money they make.

According to co-founder of Bellhops, Cameron Doody, “People don’t just want a job anymore; they want a fulfilling job,” he says. “Fulfilment at work comes with the freedom to make decisions and own your position. Employee empowerment breeds elevated customer service, because everyone treats their job like it’s their own company.”

Giving employees more freedom often means a departure from conventional business wisdom, but it can bring with it great benefits, for the business and its people alike. “Business at its core is about people working together to meet their needs and improve their situation. It is a tool to serve people, not the other way round, as is often forgotten,” sums up Hubbard.

If you’re keen to pledge your support for employee freedom, why not take part in the 10th annual National Work from Home Day, taking place this year on Friday 5 June. It will form park of Work Wise Week, which promotes modern “smarter” working practices such as flexible, remote and mobile working, as well as working from home.


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