“Freedom with Responsibility”

Image by: Tom Blackwell

The phrase ”Freedom with Responsibility?” doesn’t seem to exist in English. It’s what you get if you type in the Swedish phrase “frihet under ansvar” into Google. It’s a company culture that I’ve come to dislike more and more.

In theory “freedom with responsibility” is a fantastic thing. It means that employees are 100% empowered and that they’re trusted to get the job done. The employer doesn’t care when or how the work is done, as long as results are being delivered. This enables people to work from home and to work non-office hours to better get their “life puzzle” together. A win-win situation, right?

I tend to disagree. Theoretically, this scheme provides maximum autonomy, which is both great for motivation and counters certain forms of stress. However, I think that this autonomy comes at too great a cost for the surroundings. When taken too far, this culture tends to produce poorly adjusted employees. People who thrive in it are those who don’t want to appear in the office and who want to do things “their own way”. I have observed that this comes with certain down-sides:

Availability issues. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in some form of office hours. Not punch clocks obviously, but a reasonable time frame in which people can meet and interact; plan meetings, have spontaneous discussions, or just work together. If you have a client-facing role, people will want to reach you sometime between 9 to 15.

Truck factor issues. It’s not a law of nature that “freedom with responsibility” advocates must become that ninja heroes who do secret undocumented work that nobody understands, but the correlation is scaringly high. Yes, having people work odd hours from remote locations with limited interaction with their colleagues tends to keep the truck factor around 1 and facilitates job protection.

Performance issues. This is 100% subjective anecdotal reasoning, but I’ve yet to encounter a stellar performer who operates according to the “freedom with responsibility” doctrine. My experience is that, yes, something gets delivered, but that it’s of average or below average quality. I speculate that the reasons are limited feedback and limited connection to other peoples’ work. Again, this is no law of nature, and it can be overcome with effective communication patterns, but my experience is that it doesn’t happen. “Performance” may sound too managerial, let’s call it “feedback issues.”

Consistency issues. It’s not unheard of that work in an organization is standardized to  some degree. Some would call it “procedures”, “ways of working”, “working agreements”, or just “standards.” For no good reason, these things tend to get omitted in organizations that practice “freedom with responsibility” too extensively. The concept of freedom seems to always trump procedures, regardless of how they’re decided (like by an autonomous team, for example).  

Social awkwardness. This is where the above start to pile up. Because “freedom with responsibility” employees are more difficult to reach, they miss out on the “chatter on the floor.” They may involuntarily isolate themselves, while not being transparent enough about their work. All of this tends to make meetings and day-to-day interactions more difficult, in my experience. Let’s call it “social debt.”

So, given the downsides, should this theoretically sound principle be abandoned and replaced with micro management, reports, and punch clocks?

Absolutely! The more, the better!

No, just kidding. That said, I’d advise against making it the central pillar of your company culture. Personally, I’d go with values like teamwork, transparency, and continuous improvements, but that’s just me. Autonomy is important, and so is a bit of flexibility. After all, you do want to go to the dentist during office hours without making a thing out of it, right? However, it’s not useful to let people abuse this scheme. As a leader and a coworker, you should be a bit alert and react if your colleague’s interpretation of “freedom” makes him or her hard to reach and collaborate with.

Just a concluding note. I’m not bashing remote work. Especially in Corona times, we see that working remotely works out great for many of us. My words of caution and negative experiences are related to a deliberately crafted culture that gets quite unuseful and hard to act in when people take it to its extremes.

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