5 Steps To Build Freedom And Trust At Work

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar June 01, 2019

‘Let my people go surfing‘ is the title of Yvon Chouinard’s autobiography. Chouinard is the iconic founder of Patagonia.

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He reflects an outlook common amongst the 100+ progressive organizations we have visited. In short, hire good people, then trust them with the freedom to get on with their jobs. It puts people in charge of decisions about their own working lives, and they accept they need to deliver in return.

Put simply, you offer the right to leave the office when the surf’s up.

The burden of bureaucracy

While this maybe the case in progressive organizations, it is rare in traditional ones. There, bureaucracies make sure that employees follow the rules, and where bosses are tempted to formulate policies for what might happen.

They prefer to predict and control outcomes, including what people can achieve. This is a barrier to engagement and success. It hinders autonomy, innovation and creativity. Eventually, it becomes a liability.

The Rebel Idea

Progressive organizations act in the belief that employees are not immature, but responsible adults who can be trusted. They believe employees don’t need extensive control: that they perform best with lots of autonomy. They prefer to let employees decide where, when and with whom to work.

5 Steps To Build Freedom And Trust At Work
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But increased freedom and trust is not a one-way street—it comes with increased responsibility. No matter what system is in place, people need to be accountable for their work.

Rebel Idea in practice

So, how to do this? To get you started, here’s a list of ways some companies bring freedom and trust into the workplace. We will start with the easy ones, and move on to practices the more rebellious can try.

1. Design your own workplace

The freedom to design your own workplace is the first step.

Forget about obligatory open-offices where office clowns, or co-workers with voices like ship’s horns annoy those around them. Let employees decide where and how they want to work, and what they need to perform best.

The outcomes are often similar: an office offering a choice of quiet working spaces, meeting rooms and dedicated team areas (all including comfortable furnishings). But don’t forget, more important than the resulting design is the freedom employees experience in exercising choice.

2. Result-based working

Progressive organizations review employees primarily on the results they deliver, not on the hours they spend in the office. We call this result-based working.

How to set and measure these results is different for every organization. Some agree weekly what needs to be done, and who will do what. They post these agreements on a wall or via an online tool like Trello. Others develop more sophisticated online overviews that make it possible to compare the performance of all employees/teams.

No matter how you set and measure results, it is ultimately about the ability to evaluate what employees and teams achieve. How they get to the result is their business.

3. Remove control mechanisms one by one

Once result-based working is established, it is time to abolish old-fashioned control mechanisms, one by one.

Throw out the time clock. Forget about fixed working hours. Remove vacation policies. Destroy thick protocol documents. Remove rules that are in place to manage the 3%.

Because if you don’t trust your employees, why did you hire them in the first place? Do you feel employees will abuse the new freedoms they now enjoy? This suggests a different problem to solve. Don’t forget to fight the real problem, not the symptoms.

4. Top-down Peer review

Top-down reviews seem normal in traditional organizations. This is a shame, because they aren’t doing any good—for anyone. Stop them. Instead, create a culture where employees are accountable to their peers, not to their bosses.

Teach employees how to give proper and regular feedback to each other. Create a radically transparent environment where the performance of different teams is published so colleagues can call each other on the results achieved. Then they can help and control their peers.

5. Self-set salaries

Last but not least, here is the most exotic practice—the freedom to determine your own salary. Believe it or not, there are plenty of organizations around where employees do this.

Traditionally, salary negotiation is a secret process overlain with politics, gossip and, possibly, dishonesty. Outcomes are often unsatisfying for both employees and bosses.

Progressive organizations know that if employees can be trusted to set their own goals and review themselves and peers on results, then determining their own salary is the next logical step. It forces them to think about their true value to the organization.

Setting one’s own salary can happen in different ways. In some organizations, it is based on a simple market mechanism. In others, teams jointly determine how the salary budget will be distributed, and in others individual employees propose a salary that is then evaluated by a committee.

From the easy to the exotic, here are 5 ways to institute more freedom in your organization. As a boss, or an employee, where would you like to start?

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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