An HR Conundrum: Work Autonomy versus Consistency

The Future of Work

I am interested in the subject of the “Future of Work”, as I have written here and here, so when I came across an article entitled The Future of Work I naturally read it. One of the paragraphs talked about the importance of decentralization and autonomy prompted me to wonder if this is causes an HR conundrum. Does autonomy cause problems with consistency?

The post on Yammer said “Decentralization is really key in delivery of the right product to the market, at the brisk speed that the market requires…”  The writer then quotes Dave Gray, who talks about the future being what he calls “podular”, or made of pods, meaning an “autonomous unit that is enabled and empowered to deliver the things that customer’s value.” The Yammer author then says:

Decentralization helps companies become more adaptable in the face of constant change. Additionally, you can access employees’ passions and talents much easier in smaller, autonomous units – Dan Pink calls autonomy one of the foundations of motivation. Podular cultures help develop and maintain deep trust and mutual accountability.

The Value of Decentralization

More and more we are recognizing the value of autonomy, the value of decentralization. However, in the HR world we are constantly preaching consistency. People are to be treated the same way. All policies are supposed to be applied equally, at least that is the perception that many people in HR have. Precedent is that magical word that often eliminates having to make a decision.

So in a decentralized, autonomous world how do we in an HR world ensure that employees are being treated consistently? Do we insist on all managers following a strict list of rules in decision-making? I think not.

A Move Toward Decentralized HR

A clue comes from this article on how we can deal with this in HR. The author asks the question “How do you decentralize without causing chaos? How do you maintain a consistent brand?”. This is basically the same question I am asking. Her answer? “A common vision is the tie that binds; the ability to rally around a common vision teases the potential and passion out of people…” She says Gray gives the example of Whole Foods that allows local autonomy in the suppliers it uses but each store abides by an over-abiding principle of not selling cigarettes.

We can do the same thing in HR. We can, and should, establish a strong culture of fair treatment to all employees and make sure supervisors and managers understand this culture and are held accountable for the consistent application of this principle. This is much better that the consistent application of specific rules.


(Apologies to the author of the Yammer article, it was either anonymous or I lost the name. But thanks for the inspriation!)

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Mike Haberman

Michael (Mike) D. Haberman, SPHR is a consultant, speaker, writer of HR Observations, and co-founder of Omega HR Solutions, Inc. After over 30 years in HR he got tired of the past and focuses here on the Future of HR. Connect with Mike.


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