Time and time again, we’ve learned that employees perform at their highest aptitude when they’re happy. In one study conducted by The Social Foundation back in 2015, participants were given “happiness shocks” – a fun 10-minute surprise that ranged from candy to a funny comedy video throughout the day. The subjects that received the happiness shock purported that the shock made them happier throughout the day, and had a 12% higher productivity rate than in the control group who did not receive the shock. In the wake of a pandemic that made everyone miserable and burnout *very* real, some of the world’s biggest companies are paying attention to the importance of happiness in (and out) of the workplace. From an emphasis on mental health and wellbeing, to gorgeous lunches in the Italian countryside, to unlimited PTO, providing your team with resources to find happiness in the workplace can come in all forms. But one of the easiest (and oftentimes cost effective!) avenues is through empowering work flexibility and autonomy.
According to The Happiness Index- an organization that works to improve company culture, morale, and overall happiness- autonomy is consistently one of the top 10 factors which impact overall workplace happiness. The survey used to conduct this study took this one step further, asking surveyors to define what autonomy means to them. 20,000 women were said to perceive autonomy as flexible timing and location of work. For men, autonomy meant flexibility in delivering given tasks, as well as the timing of the overall deliverable (e.g. flexible due dates and prioritization). These factors – workplace flexibility, project deliverable flexibility, project timing flexibility – all essentially define the model in which the modern freelancer works. A freelancer can work from wherever, whenever, and this flexibility inherently allows them to bring their happiest and most productive self to the project at hand.
Work location and timing flexibility factors heavily into autonomy, but what about the work itself? Of course, the next upside to freelancing is being able to choose the work that inspires us most, the work we actually want to do. *Surprise, surprise*, doing work we want to do actually produces a higher-quality work product at the end of the day.
We can further explore this concept by studying the complete opposite side of the spectrum: what happens to our quality of work when we hate what we’re doing? A 2014 study with mood-manipulated participants proved that work that we don’t like doing can make us emotional and moody, which – understandably -“negatively affects logical reasoning performance.” This same study shows that when we’re in that “moody or emotional” state of mind already, and we have to do work that we don’t like doing, our negative emotions are compounded. In practical terms, working amidst a global pandemic this past year (where depression and anxiety rates have seen a major surge) has meant that it’s more important than ever to take on work we want to do. If we don’t, it’s bound to be some of the worst work we’ve ever produced.
Choosing our own work, as well as where and when to do it, feed into the higher concept known as “autonomy”. Many aspects of our lives rely on autonomy to thrive outside of work: our romantic lives, what we want to eat for dinner, where we want to live. And it turns out that this concept – the ability to live our lives the way we want to live our lives – is the single greatest contributor to one’s personal happiness! Psychology Today says it best: “when we’re upset about something in our lives – a breakup, a job problem, our weight – it’s usually because we’re feeling as if we’re no longer in control of this area of our lives and lacking autonomy bigtime.” We may not even be aware of it, but so much of what makes us unhappy is a lack of control.
Back on the work front, it turns out that lack of autonomy is the underlying cause of 100% of the reasons why people leave their jobs. No wonder the most in-demand talent is going freelance – as an independent contractor, you’re free to set your own working conditions and produce high-quality work with relative ease.
This is what ultimate autonomy on the job means: being able to work on projects we’re excited about, for people we like, at times and places that work for us. This ability is what defines the modern day freelancer.
Happiness, autonomy, and productivity go hand-in hand – when companies hire and invest in freelance workers, they not only benefit from specialized skills, external perspectives and reduced overhead costs, they are able to enjoy the quality of work that comes from talent that is empowered and autonomous by default.