Talking to Techsperts: The Price of Employee Freedom

We sat down with this month's Techsperts to expand on ideas about autonomy in the workplace.

You might be familiar with our ongoing Zalando Techspert Series, which collects experts from respected companies to talk all things tech, from culture to customers.

This month’s theme was about giving employees the right amount of freedom. We had Gen Sadakane, Creative Director and Co-Founder at EyeEm on board together with Mark Ralea, Managing Director at Glossybox. They were joined by Zalando Tech’s Stacia Carr, Head of People (Engineering) to chat, debate, and answer questions from the public.

Did you miss the exciting discussion? We sat down with our Techsperts to expand on ideas about autonomy in the workplace and what benefits (or hindrances) this offers to employees of companies large and small.

Zalando: In the context of giving employees freedom, how do you scale work culture to ensure it works for everybody?

Stacia Carr: Scaling freedom in an organization actually requires more guidance than anything. Creating a really strong feedback culture is part of that, to ensure employees understand whether their efforts are aligned with the company’s purpose and its business needs. This helps to provide the right kinds of checks and balances along the way – it’s not just raw feedback, but it's making sure that the right people have the opportunity to check in at the right time.

Gen Sadakane: EyeEm is obviously heavily involved in the photography community and marketplace, so for us it’s incredibly important that people take a keen interest in our core activity. For us, this is the connection to our company culture. Having this basic, yet intrinsic interest serves as the foundation for future growth.

Mark Ralea: I think the crucial ingredient is to have a common goal, especially as each individual has a goal or purpose for themselves. This, coupled with what both Stacia and Gen mentioned, are all relevant points.

Zalando: What link do you make, if any, to freedom and creativity in the workplace?

Mark Ralea: At Glossybox, we have a product related to passion and creativity, meaning that an absence of the link to freedom and creativity would result in unhappy customers. Without an explicit link between freedom and creativity, we just wouldn’t be competitive in the market.

Gen Sadakane: I believe it depends on employee levels and development. This could range from differences in age to experience. I have an agency background, meaning we were really drilled to work within strict constraints. I don’t think this is necessarily the answer, however I think there are people that need to be “schooled” in this way. People can get lost within an environment that offers too much freedom – some need guidance, as not everyone considers themselves to be creative.

Stacia Carr: Freedom and creativity are intrinsically intertwined, however unlimited freedom can hamper creativity. Freedom without constraint can result in people not producing anything, but freedom within a particular context where there are hard limitations by virtue of an organization that has to generate revenue, and has shareholders to answer to, is super powerful. It gives people the space to think out-of-the-box and for themselves.

Zalando: Do employees need to prove they can be given freedom? Is this kind of autonomy earned?

Mark Ralea: I think from the absolute beginning you need to give a lot of trust to your employees so that they’re equipped with the right amount of freedom to do their best work. Without that initial gift of trust, you’ll never be in a position to create the environment that you want.

Stacia Carr: I think I have a different point of view here. Particularly at scale, in a large organization where a high bar has been set, people need to feel that trust is earned, which is why feedback is so important. It’s not about having a difficult environment – it’s about giving people the opportunity to demonstrate what they’re capable of and to see whether their output is right for that environment. This develops trust.

When you have projects that have a lot of risk associated with them, you have to be really honest about how much blanket trust you can give. This is particularly the case when you’re dealing with junior employees who haven’t lived through the failures of others. Yes, we’re open to taking risks, but there has to be an assessment of the potential for damage and how much trust you can give based on that.

Gen Sadakane: It’s important to have clear goals and a company vision – if you’re equipped with these things, some people can figure out how to achieve what’s been indicated. Some employees will do it in a 40 hour week, some will spend 60 hours with passion. In the end, it’s all about results.


Keep an eye on our Zalando Tech Meetup page to be notified of the next Techspert Panel, or follow our updates on Twitter @ZalandoTech.

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