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What Is an Autonomous Work Group?

by Stan Mack

In an autonomous work group, employees self-organize to accomplish a task. Upper management holds the group as a whole responsible for its productivity and efficiency, but scheduling and task assignment are left to the group itself. This approach to management can improve work life and possibly increase productivity, but there are also disadvantages.

Function

Autonomous work groups vary, depending on organizational need. Some groups might be permanent, while others are temporary assignments to address a short-term project. The key is that employees in an autonomous work group are not supervised by managers on an individual basis. Rather, they democratically direct themselves. Periodically, however, they still must demonstrate the results of their efforts to management.

Employee Morale

Potential advantages of an autonomous work group include increased employee satisfaction and improved workplace morale, according to the book “Management Theory and Practice,” by G.A. Cole. Workers decide among themselves how to approach a project and distribute responsibilities. In contrast, an authoritarian management system that deprives workers of the ability to make their own decisions can make employees feel powerless, under-stimulated and unappreciated.

Quality and Efficiency

Other potential advantages of autonomous groups are increased quality and efficiency. For example, Cole provides the example of Volvo’s car plants, which found that autonomous work groups improved the quality of output and reduced overhead costs, besides increasing employee satisfaction.

Disadvantage

A possible disadvantage of autonomous work groups is they don’t always remain effective as time goes on. For example, if some workers contribute more than others, intra-group resentment can build, especially if pay is distributed equally despite differences in contributions. In this case, top performers might prefer working directly for a manager who notices and rewards their efforts and also reprimands or punishes slackers. Another disadvantage is that autonomous work groups can get mired in discussion, according to the book “Effective Group Problem Solving,” by William M. Fox. Lacking an authority figure, the democratic nature of an autonomous work group might mean workers spend more time debating than taking action.

Considerations

Managers can’t simply throw employees together and expect good results. Participating effectively in an autonomous work group requires communication skills that take time to develop. For instance, if employees aren’t used to constructive debate and group collaboration, they will need time to gain these skills. Also, some workers might have personalities that don't function well within a group dynamic, no matter how much time they're given. There’s no simple recipe for creating a highly effective autonomous work group. Rather, organizations must work with human resources professionals to initiate and help maintain groups that can manage themselves well.

About the Author

Stan Mack is a business writer specializing in finance, business ethics and human resources. His work has appeared in the online editions of the "Houston Chronicle" and "USA Today," among other outlets. Mack studied philosophy and economics at the University of Memphis.

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