'We're all adults here, right?' It's not just a slogan; it's a testament to a shift in how we work — from the days of micromanagement to an era that values trust, autonomy, and individual needs.
Moving away from the sentiments of Henry Ford ("Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?"), we’re entering a time where the essence of everyone's unique contributions (brains included this time) are valued as we embrace the human aspect of work.
Looking back at history
Think back to the traditional office or workplace setting — a place where rigid rules and hierarchical structures often stifled individual creativity. Managers had a prescriptive approach for how they wanted tasks completed, leaving little room for employees to leverage their own creative ideas and methods to get their work done. This stemmed from the kind of assembly-line thinking that Ford espoused, leaving little room for personal initiative — and leading to an environment that felt more like a rulebook than a thriving community.
The turning point
Fast forward to today, and the work landscape looks dramatically different. The realization dawned on management that employees aren't just the sum of their job titles; they're individuals with unique work and life experiences, skills, passions, neurodiverse preferences, and personal lives — all of which shape the contributions they bring to any situation.
When companies hire people, they aren't hiring characters, but rather well-rounded individuals — that is, adults.
The turning point came when companies started appreciating (and benefiting from) the uniqueness of the individuals they employed, trusting that they had the knowledge, skills, and experience to autonomously make judgment calls. When companies started asking, "What if we treated our employees as the adults they are?”
The result is a more engaged, motivated, and ultimately more productive workforce.
From theory to practice: Treating employees like the adults they are
Treating employees like adults and providing them with flexibility and autonomy to carry out their work without being micromanaged contributes to a positive work environment, increased job satisfaction, and higher productivity.
But how is it possible to make such a cultural shift, be it at a company level or team level? Here are six tips for leaders to help achieve this:
1. Empower employees through trust
The heart of this cultural shift lies in trust. Employers are learning to trust their teams to make decisions, take ownership, and contribute in meaningful ways. And in return, employees feel a sense of responsibility and commitment that goes beyond mere task completion. It's the kind of trust that fuels creativity, innovation, and a shared sense of purpose.
There are many ways leaders can build trust with their employees. Setting clear expectations and boundaries is one such example. Having shared values and clear guidelines on how your teams should communicate and behave with each other, provides clarity on expectations and helps create a sense of safety within the work environment.
For example, this team charter template will help you establish ground rules for how your team should work together.
Creating a space for psychological safety is another key way to build trust. Encouraging everyone to communicate openly and honestly, without fear of judgment or criticism, will cultivate a trusted environment.
Making sure everyone's voice is heard and valued will further build confidence and trust in team members. Running a weekly team retrospective is a great way to flex a muscle of open and honest conversations through reflection cycles. You can even leverage features like Mural’s Private Mode to encourage open and honest feedback in an anonymous format.
Of course, these aren’t the only ways you can build team trust — for more concrete examples of how to bring your team together, check out our blog on 10 ways to build trust in teams
2. Exercise flexibility and autonomy
People aren't one-size-fits-all, and neither are their work preferences. The new workplace model champions flexibility and autonomy. Employees are encouraged to work in ways that suit them best, whether it's choosing when and where they work or embracing a flexible approach to task completion. It's about understanding that personal lives matter and that work should enhance, not hinder, our human experience.
In our post-pandemic world, providing flexibility with working arrangements stands out as the most obvious way to exercise flexibility and autonomy. This might include providing remote work options, flexible working hours, and a dynamic working environment.
Outside of work location, however, there are other means for leaders to leverage flexibility and autonomy as critical drivers of successful teamwork.
Setting clear and measurable goals, so that everyone understands what they are working for and why it’s important, will set a solid foundation from which the team can work. Clear goals will give team members the autonomy to decide how best to reach them.
Related: How to set effective team goals (with examples)
Leaders can also instill autonomy in teams by promoting independent or team decision making. By involving team members in the decision-making process, they'll feel more invested in the work. This also helps develop other skills such as problem solving skills, and builds confidence. Running a voting session is a superb way to make decisions and gain consensus and buy-in within a team environment.
Delegating tasks based on an individual's strengths and interests is another way to drive flexibility and autonomy. This promotes autonomy by allowing members to assume responsibility for their work, while providing flexibility to team members.
Pro-tip: This Kanban board template will help you keep track of all your project tasks and define clear roles and responsibilities of team members
3. Communicate clearly
Clearly communicate expectations, goals, and objectives. Provide a transparent view of the organization's mission and how each employee's role contributes to it. Foster open and honest communication channels, where trust can thrive. Encourage employees to express their ideas, concerns, and feedback without fear of retribution.
Some tips for effective communication include being clear and concise to avoid ambiguity, using simple and clear language, considering language barriers, and being mindful of cultural differences. Active listening, being empathetic to other people's view points, and patience will also contribute to good communication.
For more, check out these five tips for better team communication
4. Define objectives and goals, not tasks
Instead of micromanaging tasks, focus on setting clear goals and objectives. Allow employees to determine the best way to achieve these goals, giving them the freedom to use their skills and creativity. Empower employees by involving them in the goal-setting process. When they have a say in their objectives, they're more likely to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility.
To set clear goals, it's important that you are clear on the objectives of the business so that the goals can be aligned to the company objectives. All goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Everyone on the team should be clear on their roles and responsibilities in relation to the goals and objectives.
There’s a range of ways to get your team aligned on your goals and objectives, including OKR Planning and North Star Planning
5. Provide learning and development opportunities
Encourage continuous learning and development. Offer opportunities for employees to expand their skills and knowledge, both within and outside their current roles. Support employees in pursuing professional development initiatives and acquiring new skills (e.g., human-centered and empathetic leadership techniques). This demonstrates a commitment to their growth and fosters a culture of continuous improvement.
Your employees career and development aspirations are likely to vary, even when employees are on the same team. Hold space during your one-on-one check-ins to discuss personal development and growth.
Pro-tip: Use a consistent template, like our One-on-One template, to document discussions and action plans in your meetings
6. Recognize and celebrate achievements
Acknowledge and celebrate individual and team accomplishments. Recognition boosts morale and reinforces a positive work culture. Provide constructive feedback that focuses on improvement rather than criticism. Recognize effort and progress, and be specific about what was done well.
Provide clear and specific feedback and praise in a timely manner, in a personal and even in a public setting where relevant. Recognizing achievements publicly, when appropriate, uplifts the individual, provides wider visibility of their efforts and contributions, and sets a positive example for others to follow.
Note: It’s important that you be genuine, making sure your verbal and nonverbal communication align with your words of praise. Authenticity is vital in recognition.
Related: 15 celebration ideas for virtual & hybrid teams
Another great way of recognizing and celebrating achievements is to create a culture of appreciation, encouraging peers to recognize each other's achievements and share gratitude within the team. This creates a positive work environment and promotes a culture of mutual respect and gratitude. This also removes sole responsibility from the manager.
Celebrate your team's milestones and successes with this Kudo’s Wall template
Bringing it all together
Work isn't just about tasks and deadlines; it's about people.
To navigate the future of work, we need to create environments that celebrate the human experience, where every pair of hands comes with a brain ready to drive success and fulfillment. You’ve hired people for a reason, and they’re excited to use their skills and creativity to drive your business forward. The key now is for you to let them do that.
And not just because it’s a good thing to do (it is, though), but because it makes the most sense — for everyone involved.
If you would like to learn more about how to thrive in the new work world, reach out to our Professional Services team, who specialize in driving New Ways of Working and supporting culture transformation initiatives.