Employee Autonomy: Finding the Right Balance Between Freedom and Compliance for Your Company’s Business Travels

You began your business with the hope that every member of your team would work passionately and diligently. Initially, your employees were dedicated and hard-working, eager to achieve a common goal. However, as your business grew, you began to notice a decline in productivity. Now, you feel as though some of your employees have lost faith in themselves and in the company.

So, how do you solve this?

The first step is to find the source of these behavioral changes. Unfortunately, too eager to find a cure, many employers end up fixating on the symptoms of declining productivity, rather than searching for the causes. It is understandable that many employers fall into this trap: the weight of a company is on their shoulders and they are desperate to remedy issues as quickly as possible. Yet, by turning a blind eye to the true issues in a workplace, you risk allowing the same negative workplace behaviors to perpetuate.

It is tempting to take a shortcut, but instead, try to put yourself in your employees’ shoes: what would help them? More freedom? Less? Before you decide what degree of autonomy is best suited for your company, you must first understand why your employees are falling short of your expectations.

Employee Non-Compliance: How Your Policies Affect Employee Behavior

Before you jump to conclusions, consider the alternatives. Ask yourself what you may be doing to cause a lack of compliance among your employees. One of the most prevalent causes of employee non-compliance and behavioral changes is travel. Business travel has become one of the most difficult aspects of a company to manage. Thus, travel inevitably puts your company’s policies under a microscope; every seemingly inconsequential detail can actually determine the success of a business trip. If your travel policy is inaccessible, muddled, and restrictive, your employees may end up feeling confused and disconnected. Your company’s corporate travel culture illustrates what may be occurring on a larger scale in your company; if your travel policy is failing to motivate your employees, it is likely that the way you manage and communicate with your employees at large must change.

A new kind of travel management

your team will love

Case Study—Travel Policy Issues: Why are Your Employees Going Outside the Travel Policy?


During business travels, employees must act without supervision. Yet, they are still expected to adhere to their company’s guidelines in order to minimize spendings and increase efficiency. Often times, employees go outside their company’s travel policy and use other booking channels. This is rarely because of laziness or malice. These issues find their source in the very way the company is managed. For example, if your travel policy is inaccessible, your employees will be unaware of how they are supposed to act. Even if you have a detailed policy, your employees may not be fully aware of what you want from them. Business travels can be extremely stressful; in the moment, many employees may fail to look at their company’s travel policy. If your travel policy is unclear, your employees may be feeling like failures; they may feel as though they can no longer succeed, no matter how hard they try. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to a sharp decline in production.


So, before you assume that the fault lies with your employees, look over your travel policy. Is it clear and accessible, or is it too rigid and unrealistic? If you feel like your company needs to rethink their policy, check out our detailed guide on how to create an effective travel policy.

However, it is not enough simply to redo your company’s travel policies; you must also rethink the way you manage your employees.

Dangerous Solutions: Going to Extremes with Your Management Style

Travel highlights a company’s management issues. In an effort to make sure that a trip is successful, many companies decide to leave nothing up to the traveling employee—they make all the decisions beforehand. However, if you do not trust your employees during corporate travels, it is likely you do not have complete faith in them when they are at the office. Even if you do have faith in your employees, your strict policies may make them feel as though they have not gained your trust. Often times, it is the way your employees interpret your actions that matter more than your true feelings. Rather than training our employees to be subordinates, we should help our employees feel empowered and capable. Unfortunately, some companies do not realize where the true problem lies. They see their employees failing and they assume they have to strictly monitor workplace behavior.

Micromanagement: A Danger to Employee Productivity and Morale

When trying to solve issues they see within their company, many employers begin to micromanage their employees out of fear for their company. They believe in their business so much that it becomes debilitating; they can no longer see clearly. When an employer begins to micromanage their business, employees are in danger of becoming tools that need to be controlled, rather than people with independent ideas and needs. Corporate travel becomes even more stressful as employers pull in the reins and increase restrictions. Although it is important for employers to pay attention to every ‘micro’ detail, it becomes dangerous when this attention to detail turns into an obsession with control. When you use control as your main management tool, you limit your perspective. Micromanaging has a fixed point of view: the point of view of the employer. If you neglect the perspectives of your employees, you miss out on hearing valid opinions and suggestions. This limits your management style, your capacity to communicate, and ultimately your ability to manage.

When employers begin to micromanage the workplace, their employees give over their independence. This will especially impact business travels, which often require impromptu decision-making. If your employees do not feel as though they have permission to think freely, they will not be able to face the unforeseen challenges of business travels. According to a research paper by the author SK Collins, long-term micromanagement can lead to “low employee morale, high staff turnover, [and] reduction of productivity.” Collins states that micromanagement is so hazardous that “it is labeled among the top three reasons employees resign.” When you micromanage your employees, they will inevitably feel less capable. They will no longer feel as though they have the freedom to think independently and creatively. Employees will stop attempting to go above and beyond; they will feel stuck and incapable of rising in the ranks of your business.

micromanagement-boss-suit-and-tieNo matter how pure your intentions are, if you ignore the psychological impact of micromanagement on your staff, your business will suffer. Technical writer Jack Wallen comments, “trust is a two-way street: your staff must be able to trust you as much as you trust them. Micromanagement destroys trust.” So, when you send your employees off on corporate travels, make sure they understand that you trust them to make their own decisions. No matter how detailed your travel policy is, there will always be times when your employees must make decisions on their own.

Not only will micromanagement destroy employee productivity and morale, but it will also hurt you. Wallen comments, “micromanagement is not only bad for your employees, but it can take a terrible toll on your physical and mental health.” Rather than obsessively monitoring employee behavior, consider giving your staff a level of autonomy. Wallen believes that this will cause them to “take pride in what they do and how they do it.” Who knows—your employees may even return from their business travels more confident than ever, eager to share their accomplishments with you!

Studies Have Proven: The Psychology Behind Workplace Autonomy

I won’t take a role that lacks autonomy. It may seem like a small aspect of my work life, but if it can impact my happiness, my job satisfaction, and even my health, it’s not something I’m willing to compromise on.” –Belle Beth Cooper, co-founder of the startup Hello Code

It is important not to simply put a Bandaid over your company’s issues. You must look beneath the surface: unmotivated and unreliable employees are not always this way because of their personal work ethic. It is the psychological impact that the workplace has on employees that truly determines how productive and compliant your team will be.

Happy Employees are Productive Employees

A high level of autonomy has been proven to correlate with emotional satisfaction and increased engagement at work. A study in Taiwan found that the more autonomy a worker had, the more “satisfied they were with their jobs and the less likely they were to leave their positions.” Autonomy in the workplace correlates to “higher engagement at work [and] increased job satisfaction.” According to professor Steve Maier at the University of Boulder, “stressors we can’t control are far more damaging than stressors we feel we have some control over.” Thus, if you give your employees more autonomy, they are less likely to feel emotionally exhausted by any conflict that may arise.

Stressed Employees are More Unhealthy

A study of British civil servants found that feeling a lack of control at work “contributed more to incidence of coronary heart disease” in employees “than standard risks like smoking.” This makes sense—less stress = a longer life!

Autonomy Increases Workplace Camaraderie and Productivity

In a research study led by Joris Lammers at the University of Cologne, participants were asked to imagine scenarios in which their employer allowed them to choose between having autonomy or authority. NYMag contributor Melissa Dahl reports that “people were nearly two and a half times more likely to take a job that gave them more autonomy than they were to want a job that gave them more influence.”

Autonomy makes your staff work better as a team: A study published by tworkplace-productivity-employees-walkinghe Personality and Social Psychology journal found that “gaining autonomy quenches the desire for power.” So, there will be less competition amongst team members if you give them autonomy. They will focus more on their own impact rather than fighting for a position. This increase in synergy will extend to business travels as well: if your employees are working well in the office, chances are they will cooperate on corporate trips as well!

A study even found that job autonomy is related to higher education levels among employees. Experienced and knowledgeable employees don’t need constant supervision in order to succeed. Educated employees are likely more freethinking and competent; they will thrive in careers that let them take the reins! If you give your employees more autonomy, you may realize that they are even better equipped for the job (and more intelligent) than you even thought!

Steps You Can Take: Determining How Much Autonomy is Fitting for Your Company

How can you allow these necessary freedoms while still making sure that your employees remain accountable and diligent? Perhaps they need more guidance. Yet, even if this is so, according to Joan Cheverie of Educause Review, it is important that employees “perceive that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition, and that they are the source of their own actions.” Every company is different; employers must learn how to create a unique, healthy balance of autonomy and compliance in the workplace.

How to Begin Increasing Workplace Autonomy

The degree of autonomy employers give their employees can vary, “from having a say in your own goals or the projects you work on, to deciding when and where to do your work.” Quartz Media suggests increasing autonomy slowly. If you allow your employees too much autonomy at once, you risk “giving them too much control and having to backtrack later.” This would undermine your authority and only serve to disappoint and confuse your employees. For example, if you give an inexperienced or unreliable employee total authority over booking their flight, they may make the mistake of booking all first class tickets, instead of choosing the most affordable options. This overspending can derail travel plans that must be completed on a limited budget.

employee-freedom-woman-working-on-computerAs you slowly begin to increase autonomy in the workplace, you should still give your employees direction. It is your job to set general deadlines and benchmarks. But, after pointing your employees in the right direction, consider handing them the reigns. A balance must be found between autonomy and structure. If you allow your employees to determine how to accomplish a job, it will “leave managers free to focus on high-level, strategic thinking… and give employees the freedom to design their own approach to the work itself.” So, the next time you send a reliable and experienced employee on a business trip, ask them what they would change about your travel policy. Perhaps your employee feels that they would work better if they had a little more time for leisure during the business trip. Or, perhaps they simply want to have a say over where and when they meet potential clients. If you listen to your trusted employees and loosen the reins, you will be surprised at how productive your business travels can become.

Still, you must make sure that your employees understand what is expected of them. David Rock, executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, suggests “outlining boundaries of what behaviors are okay” and then “let[ing] people create within this frame.” When your employees travel, make sure they know the limits of your budget. Yet, at the same time, try to give them control over the details, like where and when they meet with potential clients. If your employees set their own objectives, they will feel intrinsically motivated; they will have “the desire to do something for its own sake.” This model applies to business travels as well: though your employees must have a firm grasp on the travel policy, you must also make sure that they know you trust them to think for themselves.

So, allow your employees to figure out their own way to complete a project. If you can’t allow them complete freedom, try to at least give them a choice between options, and allow them to proceed how they deem fit. If you have to specifically tell your employees how to reach a goal, Forbes suggests “creating the feeling of choice by inviting your employee to make decisions about more peripheral aspects of the task.” Even allowing your employees to choose the type of lunch you will order for a meeting can give them a feeling of autonomy.

Consider Your Employees’ Personal Interests

Not only should you consider letting your employees set their own goals, but you should also think about the personal interests of each of your employees. If you offer new, exciting opportunities for your workers, they are less likely to get bored and search for new employment opportunities. For example, Tracy Kellner, owner of Provenance Food and Wine, offers her employees projects “that can be handled at home.” This way, her employees do not become tired of the monotony of working in a shop all day long. These variations help employees to feel more motivated and capable! Pay attention to astute employees that seem eager to travel. Give them a chance to prove that they can be trusted to make wise decisions during corporate travels.

The Bottom Line: The Perception of Choice in the Workplace

As you try to increase autonomy at your workplace, remember to stay focused on the ultimate goal: a “perceived feeling of choice” among your employees. Ultimately, you will still be making the final decisions. Still, Forbes contributor Heidi Grant Halvorson underscores the importance of allowing the members of your team “to see that the goals they are pursuing have real value—you want them to make the goals their own.” This will lead to more motivated, more satisfied employees; the “goals we choose for ourselves” are those that motivate us and satisfy us the most.

Changes Your Company Should Consider: Various Levels of Autonomy, Specific Tools and Solutions

Many companies are beginning to implement specific strategies in order to boost employee morale and increase employee autonomy. Although not all of these solutions may make sense for your company, consider the following solutions as you begin to increase autonomy in your workplace.

Incentive Programs: Reward Your High-Performing Employees!

incentive-programs-computer-near-waterMany companies implement incentive programs in order to reward positive employee behavior. Give your employees some freedom and award those who use it wisely! Perks’ Deb Broderson suggests implementing an employee recognition system “to reward employees who contribute to organizational improvements, talent acquisition, and innovation.” So, if your employee is able to hook a new corporate client during business travels, make it clear that you appreciate them!

Moving from Hierarchical to Participatory Management

As your business grows, it may make sense to delegate responsibilities to middle or lower-level employees, rather than overwhelming upper management. You can still make all the major decisions, but allow the rest of your employees to shoulder some of the burden. Not only will this lead to more efficient decision-making, but it will empower your employees. This change will be especially helpful during corporate travels. It is impossible to make every major decision when you aren’t the one in transit—so have a little faith in your traveling employees!

Freedom for Travelling Employees

Travelling employees, according to Trippeo, are often high-performing. These positions are increasingly filled by millennials, and these millennials want autonomy. Trippeo proposes that “the policy should also allow the employee to adapt the trip to his or her requirements. And the policy needs to adopt right back. ” Trippeo does this through their product “that values intelligence and planning over prizes. When you empower your employees to make positive contributions to your company on a timeframe that works for them, you build a stronger company foundation. And who doesn’t want a workforce that can work within policies, independently?”

No More 40-Hour Work Week

The co-authors and co-founders Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson comment in their new book that “having the freedom to control one’s own work flow is more in sync with human nature.” Especially among millennials, the 40-hour work week is too rigid. Instead of forcing your employees to stay at the office for a set amount of hours, consider letting your employees work from home. We do not all have the same peak hours of productivity! It is about productivity; not how many hours yours employees were stuck at their desks. Ressler and Thompson’s innovative business platform system, ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment), suggests that employees should be allowed to work “whenever they want with no set schedules.” The alternative work schedule has become the norm in Sweden, with overwhelming success. Linus Feldt, CEO of the Swedish tech company Filimundus, comments: “to stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. . . . In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the workday more endurable.” Startups like Asana are following suit, and the employees—and employers—are loving their flexible work schedules!

Many CEOs are implementing these changes, and more—some even suggest radical solutions, like letting your employees assign you tasks, and giving your employees their own budgeted credit cards. So, do what you feel is best for your company! Try trusting your employees more and see if they live up to expectations.They may surprise you!

Alternative: Decreasing Employee Autonomy

Travel Trip Map Direction Exploration Planning ConceptDespite the proven psychological and financial benefits of employee autonomy, some employers have decided to reduce workplace autonomy by “monitoring behavior on workplace computers, or even on the phone or in the car.” In an age of technological advancements, it is tempting to try out these new tools.

Ultimately, it is up to you. Just make sure you are making an informed decision!

Dangers and Factors: What to be Aware of as You Restructure Your Company

If you decide to restructure your company and give your employees more freedom, make sure that you truly understand what autonomy entails! Giving your employees independence does not mean that team members are working in isolation or doing whatever they want. Autonomous workers still need to receive “strong, clear guidance.” The following tips can help you ease into a more autonomous corporate structure.

Unity is Key

Make sure that your team is working together! If everyone has a different idea about what they are allowed to do with their independence, the team may “find itself uncertain about how to move forward, which actually reduces productivity and effectiveness.” During business travels, for example, make sure that all traveling employees communicate with one another; every employee must understand the game plan in order for things to run smoothly!

Always Pay Your Employees Fairly

If an employee feels they are proving that they can work successfully without much supervision, consider giving them a raise! If they feel as though they have unfair compensation, their work ethic will diminish. You put a lot of faith in your employees during business travels, so make sure they know that you appreciate them! If you don’t reward good behavior, your employees may think that they are better off simply following the travel policy word for word.

Remain Transparent and Foster Trust in the Workplace

Make sure you remain transparent with your employees. Without trust, they will not feel motivated or capable of working independently! Make sure your employees are aware of the long term goals of your company, rather than letting them wonder, “‘why is it we’re doing this?’…Let them know you respect and value them by being clear on where the company is going, how it’s performing and what you’re planning next.” This is particularly crucial during business travels. If you simply give your employees tasks without explaining to them why these assignments are important, your team will feel confused and unmotivated.

Be a Perspicacious Boss

Always pay attention to your employees; observe their behaviors and anticipate their concerns. According to Tanya Robertson of Chron, “the culture of [your] organization will play a large role in how successful autonomy can be… some employees will work better with little oversight, while others need extra direction.” If you pay attention to how your employees work, you will know which tasks should be assigned to which members of your team. This will help you find the perfect self-sufficient employees for corporate travels—you won’t have to worry about providing excess supervision!

Now, it’s time for you to decide—and remember, a happy and independent staff makes a successful company!