It is a universally acknowledged truth that the path to engagement in the digital workplace has to lead through autonomy. Micromanaged employees are likely to feel bored and even resentful – anything but engaged. Employees given autonomy, on the other hand, have every reason to feel engaged.

After all, one working definition of employee autonomy – “autonomy is the power to shape your work environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best” – incorporates good work performance into it. Good work performance and engagement go together.

There are, nonetheless, issues that arising in the balancing of autonomy and engagement. What if one employee’s idea of autonomy is working virtually when engagement with the company is fostered – and mandated – by all-hands-on-deck meetings? What occurs when autonomy impinges on other employees or the work product? It can be an issue calling for the most sophisticated of leadership skills.

Maintaining Balance

A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review explores the multiple conflicts that can arise between autonomy and engagement, pinpointing three areas of concern.

The first is the balance between autonomy and accountability. To make sure that accountability is maintained, good leadership skills should set forth very clear and measurable objectives. They should be transparent. Employees should be in no doubt as to what the company’s goals are and what their role is in achieving them.

The second is the balance between freedom to innovate and maintaining established routines. Innovation is to be striven for – it’s the fuel for breakthrough ideas and plans. But routines that have been proven to be workable for the greatest number, whether they are for accounting or for vacation policy, need to be maintained, or chaos can rule.

The third is the balance between alignment and control. In traditional management structures, line managers and upper-level managers work together to make sure tasks and activities are in alignment with company goals. Innovation, especially among cross-functional teams, often happens very quickly. It can be a challenge for managers to respond with a proper balance between alignment and control.

The Example of Spotify

For an individual case of a company that achieves a great balance between autonomy and engagement, the author looked at Sweden-based Spotify, a company that streams videos, music, and podcasts to roughly 30 million subscribers.

Spotify’s management structure is highly unusual, at least in nomenclature.

The primary unit of organization is an autonomous unit, called a squad. No more than eight people are in every squad (the same average number as for line managers in an organization). The squads have accountability from a specific aspect of a given product, throughout the planning and production cycle.

Squads are highly autonomous. They determine what to make, how to make it, and who they will partner with.

Squads, in turn, are in a matrix called a tribe.

In addition, there is a horizontal group called a chapter, which links together the tribes. The chapter facilitates competencies like coaching, web development, and quality assurance. It emphasizes learning and training across squads.

Most surprisingly, perhaps, squad leadership is decided upon by the squad. Chapters, on the other hand, are led by an appointed manager.

There is one more piece: guilds. The primary purpose of guilds is to organize and share knowledge in cross-functional areas.

A squad structure is highly autonomous, but the matrix it’s embedded in ensures accountability. It also ensures that any need for more knowledge or more training is met through the chapters and guilds. The overall structure also ensures a balance between appointed managers and managers whose role is the result of perceived ability on the part of his or her ability.

Striking a balance between engagement and accountability is one that may be facilitated by new structures and plans.