Decisions, decisions: how choice can improve employee wellbeing in the workplace
As employees look to widen their options, increase their flexibility and gain more control over their working environment, how can organisations respond to these new expectations?
Today, people want more control over where, when, and how they work, and they hope that, when the restrictions stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic end, companies will offer them more options and greater flexibility. Being able to control the environment where we operate is essential for our wellbeing, especially in these moments of great uncertainty. And this perception of control is not only desirable from a psychological perspective, but it is a need determined by our own biology (1).
We can exercise control when we have options and are able to choose. This applies to transcendent as well as basic issues and, in each case, the best option arises from the confrontation between the current situation and previous experiences, together with the ability of our brain to anticipate a possible future. Ultimately, all voluntary behaviour involves a choice, and each choice reinforces the perception of control.
In the workplace, choice is related to the ability to choose where, how, and when to work. Being able to move around the office to find a suitable space for the task that is being carried out or decide whether to work in person or from home makes us feel more productive, less stressed, and more satisfied and, at the same time, it helps us deal with daily routine.
Even small adjustments such as moving or adding a monitor, turning on a work light, reorienting furniture, or organising tasks can make a big difference. The possibility of choosing among several options, however inconsequential, generates greater autonomy and leads to better performance.
It is important to note that the concept of autonomy—understood as people’s ability to make decisions for themselves—is the result of the productive context. For example, in the predominantly manufacturing-based industrial economy, employees worked according to the assembly line model and the only possible autonomy was limited to work schedules and processes (2).
However, in the current era of knowledge and technological developments, the options are not limited to schedules and processes only; they also extend to workday planning and decision-making autonomy, all of which have been associated with better results for companies and increased job satisfaction, engagement, and quality of employee performance.
This tendency, which had been slowly developing, was suddenly catalysed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, the focus has shifted to greater flexibility in health and lifestyle choices, taking into account aspects such as family structure, work schedule and location, physical and mental health, and the stage of life we are in along with other social and cultural factors.
And in these moments of great uncertainty, having options is an inestimable benefit to face the reality we are living in.
Options create benefits
Offering flexibility so that collaborators have more options to do their tasks can be a good alternative as long as all the actors reach a mutually beneficial agreement regarding the expectations and the established rules. It also implies fostering an organisational culture that recognises and rewards responsibility and performance rather than work attendance, and that promotes transparency so that employees can establish guidelines that allow them to prioritise both their work and their well-being.
These are some of the benefits:
Greater perception of self-efficacy and control. The perception of control increases motivation to face challenges, even in the absence of true control. But eliminating all options can be very stressful.
Greater autonomy. When people feel free to make decisions for themselves, they can choose what is most meaningful to them and thus increase their sense of purpose.
Empowerment of the workforce. Empowerment refers to having decision-making power and adequate resources to work autonomously. When this does not happen, there is a risk of burnout.
Higher productivity. With better performance comes more profitability.
Greater engagement. The most engaged employees tend to have more options as to where, how, and when they work.
Greater responsibility. Choice means greater control, empowerment, and commitment, which implies greater responsibility for tasks.
Better balance between work and personal life. Having several options for working is an essential tool that improves the balance between work life and family responsibilities, especially in the context of the pandemic.
Greater wellbeing and better mood. Research shows that workers most at risk of illness are those with high psychological demands and little freedom of choice. Conflicts for control are often at the root of anxiety and mood disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse. Choosing is gratifying and improves mood.
With a little help….
Until recently, the social sciences assumed that people are rational subjects who always choose the most beneficial options against those that harm us. However, thanks to the work of Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, this view has changed. Today it is widely accepted that our minds often incur systematic errors, logical failure and cognitive biases that influence our everyday thinking.
‘It is more likely we choose the default option as it requires less cognitive effort…’
These mental shortcuts that help us make quick decisions without much effort within the complex world we live in can also lead us to distortions and irrational conclusions. The result of this discovery is that the circumstances in which we make a decision—the so-called ‘choice architecture’ – can condition us. For example, it is more likely that we choose the ‘default’ option as it requires less cognitive effort.
In 2008, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein created the ‘Nudge’ concept, a theory aimed at trying to improve people’s decisions and behaviour by making subtle changes in the context in which they make their choices. These are voluntary initiatives that try to move people in directions that will improve their lives. Nudges should not eliminate alternative options and should be easy to avoid or cancel.
Within the workplace and in the present context, there is likely to be a wide range of preferences among employees about how, when, and where to work. In this case, the use of nudges can help establish a choice architecture in which the default option communicates the recommendations or expectations of the company.
This can be achieved in two ways: by facilitating the decision-making process in favour of the option that is considered most beneficial or by increasing friction on the unwanted option. In response to the objections to this method for being considered manipulative or paternalistic, it should be stated that no choice architecture is neutral.
Interventions can use multiple channels and formats that meet basic standards:
- The perception of the expectations of the company is decisive to guide the behaviour of employees. For example, if managers work in the office, we might expect the rest of the people to also choose to go to the office.
- Social behaviour is important in influencing the decisions that are made. If most employees are in the office, and that is what the company expects, communicating the news can encourage others to do the same. The need to belong to the majority is present within all human communities.
- The default option, that is, the one that is considered most beneficial to the staff in a given circumstance or the one that expresses the company’s expectations, should set the tone for internal communications.
1 LEOTTI, L.A. et al. (2010): “Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need”.
2 GAGNE, M. & BHAVE, D. P. (2011): “Autonomy in the Workplace: An Essential Ingredient to Employee Engagement and Well-being in Every Culture”.