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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Freedom in Business Context

The employee freedom at workplace has been an issue since time immemorial. The issue is as old as the concept of work itself. Only few centuries back the “master-slave” concept dominated the work culture, where the worker or slave had no rights. The slaves were even sold and they had no rights on their own body also. The societies changed and the master - slave relationship also changed into master-servant relationship. The servants had more freedom than the slaves, but they had just to follow the instruction of their masters. They had no say in the matter of work. The relationship further developed into the modern employer and employee relationship. The employees have been given a number of rights by the states and the relationship has grown into a contractual type over the period of time. Modern employees have acquired knowledge in specific areas and they are free to choose the organizations as per their suitability of profession and rewards.

Now let us analyze the freedom issues at workplace in various organizations. Generally most of the organizations, now a day, provide well-defined work procedures for all possible processes they carry out. This is done to avoid the variations in quality of work and to eliminate the “personal factors”. The output of the organization should not depend on specific persons but should be system based. Even the smaller changes made by an individual, if done without much thinking, can lead to voluminous unfavorable impact on the organization; this explains why various studies are carried out, the consequences are analyzed and contingency factors are kept in mind before taking any “change” decision. The idea is to improve the system and get the desired result. Although we cannot ignore the fact that certain jobs like policy and strategy formulation, growth decisions and many more other similar jobs remain person based but these decisions are taken by few select top management people and is not a day to day affair; efforts are being made to remove “personal factors” from these jobs also. So we can assume that for a normal employee the processes are defined and he has to perform up to some expectations. So, do I mean that the freedom of the employees is being curtailed day by day? ; The answer is no. There is a difference between “personal factor” and freedom. In fact organizations are providing more and more freedom to their employees than ever before. The idea is to increase the freedom and decrease the “personal factors”.

The freedom at work place, from organizational point of view, can be divided into two categories; first is the visible freedom and another may be called as invisible freedom.
The “visible freedom” is those which can be directly perceived by employees. Many organizations are providing more visible freedom to their employees. The informal dressing is one such freedom. The informal dressing creates the psychological impact on employees and many organizations believe that it creates more productive environment; although many others believe that dress code improves the image of organization and inculcates professionalism in the employees.

There is a new trend of “flexi time” in many companies. These companies, particularly, focus on the output of the employees rather than their in-out times. Employees are given time bound targets and if the employee delivers the result, no question is asked about his punctuality and his working hours. The concept of ‘work from home’ is the further extension of the ‘flexi time’ idea. The employee is asked to complete a project with its output schedule and employee is free to work from office or home. These new trends have increased the output of employees and have benefited the organizations; though these concepts do not suit to all organizations. For example in a manufacturing organization “flexi time” and “work from home” will not work as employees can not take the machines to their home and they are required to work at shop floor along with others.

Let us discuss about the invisible freedom. The invisible freedom is more important than the visible freedom. This freedom can be defined as “flexibility and independence” enjoyed by the employees while they discharge their duties. The invisible freedom at workplace is related to the employee’s job satisfaction. The more freedom an employee enjoys, more satisfied he feels. As the satisfaction and happiness increases the productivity also increases. Many learning organizations provide full freedom to dissent. They believe that employees must be given full freedom to express their ideas and opinions about an issue or problem All superiors are supposed to listen their subordinates’ viewpoints, even if they clash with their own. This leads to a participative approach in day to day operation and decision making of the organization. The differing viewpoints about an issue or problem are collected and they are evaluated for their strengths and benefits. After evaluation, the most suitable idea or sometimes umbrella of ideas are adopted for implementation. It may be possible that a subordinate may give a better solution to a problem than his superior. If the freedom to dissent is not given to employees in an organization, this kind of benefit will not be available to such organization. Even if somebody’s viewpoint is not accepted, he must be explained as to why his viewpoint has not been accepted. This approach not only satisfies him but also makes him the part of the decision. He feels the sense of belongingness and gets motivated. If the employees of an organization are free to express them, they give and take feedbacks more frequently. These feedbacks may be related to processes and people. In both the cases, if feedbacks are taken in positive sense, they improve the processes and peoples very fast. Three sixty degree feed back is nothing but the extension of the idea “freedom of expression”.

Many organizations provide freedom to share the knowledge among the employees. This trend is new, as many traditional and old companies did not believe in knowledge sharing and they kept the knowledge with few people. Knowledge sharing organizations provide various platforms and systems which facilitates free knowledge sharing within the organization. Knowledge management and suggestion management are examples of such systems. In knowledge management system, employees are encouraged to post their experience and knowledge into the system. In this way a knowledge pool is created. This pool is freely accessible by all employees. Employees can directly contact with the author of the knowledge piece in case of doubt and even provide feedback. This kind of knowledge pool becomes a great asset for the organization. In suggestion management the employees are free to give their suggestions for any improvement. The suggestions are evaluated and implemented, if found appropriate, and the suggestion maker is recognized also. These systems have given immense benefits to many organizations.

Many organizations provide their employees the freedom to fail. This freedom is mother of all creativity and innovation. The “freedom to fail” concept inspires people to experiment at workplace. Human mind is the biggest factory of idea generation. But these ideas cannot be converted into reality unless they are tested for their validity and benefits. If employees get the opportunity to experiment their ideas without the fear of failure, they tend to produce more and more creative and innovative solutions. Their moral remains very high and they always think positive. Whereas in the organizations where people are blamed, if something goes wrong, they tend not to do new things to avoid the “blame game”. The speed of improvements in such organizations is very slow and sometimes they stagnate and die. But this doesn’t mean that the employees should always be experimenting. The implementation of the successful experiment is as important as the innovation itself. These two things should go hand in hand. The implementation requires a great deal of discipline and sometimes restricts the freedom of experimentation. A good blend of freedom and discipline brings about the best of the employees.

In an organization many employees enjoy greater freedom than their peers. The extent of freedom a person enjoys depends on his attitude and performance. The freedom is generally given by a boss to his subordinate. A superior may not provide same freedom to his all subordinate. He judges the capabilities of all his subordinates in terms of productivity, expertise, experience and inclination towards innovation and creativity. He rates his subordinates on the basis of these qualities. The more capable a subordinate is, the more freedom he enjoys.

Freedom should not be given without control. Since freedom creates lot of free energy in the organization, the channelization of this free energy towards the organizational goal is very important; otherwise this energy can be destructive also.

by Anurag Mishra
TAPMI, Manipal, India

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