How Self-Direction can Boost Productivity: an Interview with Emilia Vesa

By WunderdogJan 11, 2021Read time 6 min
Emilia Vesa Head of People Operations at Wunderdog

Self-determination requires goal setting, a clear understanding of the job description and supportive structures. 

We sat down with Emilia Vesa, Head of HR and People Operations at Wunderdog to talk about the possibilities and challenges of self-determination in organizations.

Emilia Vesa, Head of HR and People Operations at Wunderdog, identifies as a culture nerd. She’s a social psychologist and holds a M.A. of social science. Emilia’s Master’s thesis topic was about self-determination (Deci & Ryan): the individual ability to regulate and adapt behavior to the demands of a situation in order to achieve personally chosen goals and values. We sat down with Emilia and had a chat about how self-determination can define a productive environment at a workplace, and the challenges that she, as a Head of People Operations, encounters when trying to make sure the employees’ well-being is addressed.

Emilia, you are a self-determination expert. What does “self-determination” mean?

Self-determination is a theory that is defined based on the individual’s inner motivation and through three psychological basic needs: autonomy, sense of relatedness and competence. It refers to a person's ability to make choices and manage their own life (self-direction). This theory can be applied to different spheres of life, including work. When applied to work, it should be noted that self-determination at work demands certain prerequisites from both the individual and the employer.

Can you clarify this relation between employer and employee?

Yes. The individual can’t be forced to be self-directed only from an external source. A truly self-directive approach requires the individual’s inner motivation.

How can you find this self-direction from within in practice? Can you give us an example?

It depends on the individual. For me, self-direction in practice would be: “I open my laptop in the morning and try to structure my work. What’s essential today? What’s the most rational thing to do?”. In self-directed work, the employees internalize the given goals and expectations for their work. They are able to actively prioritize the given tasks and proceed as desired.

It sounds easy, but what are the possible challenges that may occur?

If the goals are unclear or they haven’t been discussed thoroughly enough with the employer or other relevant party, the employee can find it difficult to understand what is relevant and satisfactory.

What happens when the company has a flat hierarchy? How do you, Emilia, create structures and solutions working in People Operations?

Self-direction is shown in two different ways: on a personal level and –in my case– from the People Operations angle.

Let’s start with the personal.

On a personal level, I needed to be very self-directed when I started at Wunderdog during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example. The introduction to my work was done remotely and I had to meet the team using unusual resources. In my case, I became familiarized with the job quite independently, especially because I couldn’t have an instructor or coworkers sitting next to me. Remote introduction to a new job and onboarding can be challenging. Here’s where the employer’s role becomes relevant: the way they accompany you in the process is key. I’m personally very pleased with how Wunderdog made my onboarding and monitoring as high-quality as possible given the circumstances. In my case I had very helpful meetings and support from new colleagues.

And what can you say about People Operations?

From the perspective of the Head of People Operations, I analyze self-determination from both the company’s angle but also our employees. We ponder in what ways can we make self-direction as supported as possible. We’re an organization with little supervision, which means freedom and responsibility are mostly on the employees’ hands. Having a flat hierarchy implies creating new structures and solutions to support self-directed work. In an organisation like ours, we can’t directly take advantage of the same solutions that support organisations with more established, but also constraining hierarchies.

Self-direction is often presented in a positive light. But when self-direction is poorly supported, it can become a risk.

How do you see self-direction, then: is it a threat or a possibility?

Self-direction is often presented in a positive light. But when self-direction is poorly supported, it can become a risk. For instance, if employees can’t understand what’s expected and what is relevant for their job, or don’t have a clear direction, it will be difficult for them to self-direct and be satisfied with the outcome. It is difficult to be pleased with your work when you don’t know if you’ve done things right or not. Vague goals combined with self-directed expectations can result in overload and exhaustion.

How can you make sure the overload and exhaustion don’t happen?

The employer needs to make sure the employee’s self-directed work is supported. Letting the employee know he/she can rely on the employer is fundamental. When that happens, self-directed work offers opportunities for the individual to be creative, solve problems independently, and feel successful. It also pushes the employees to try out different ways of executing their job freely.

Of course, this will improve the employee’s mental health.

Yes. I still think in general the connection between self-directed work and mental health should be discussed more openly and explored more deeply. I think it would help us see how self-direction can’t be expected to be sustainable without the support from the employer’s side. And also it would help employees see they need to have open & close communication with their employer.

How can employees support their own well-being in self-directed work?

Employees and employers should always be aligned. The same applies to customers. Knowing what are the concrete goals of the employee’s work is important for their functioning. In an ideal situation, this conversation is held in the beginning of the employer-employee relationship. It’s on the employee’s responsibility to ensure he/she has internalized the goals and is up to date about the possible changes. Also to actively ask if something is unclear. The employer needs to make sure all this information is provided in a clear manner.

In addition, in the everyday life of self-directed work it’s essential that the work is re-evaluated every now and then and that working days have been actively organized.

What are the employer’s responsibilities to make sure self-directed work is successful?

When moving towards a more self-directed work, it’s important to actively think about the concrete actions supporting employees in a changed environment. If we remove or displace structures and operation models, e.g. remove the supervisory work, we need to produce replacements for them. This is something that many workplaces need to urgently improve.

Remote work is a really good example of self-direction. The transition to remote work should make sure employees are heard and supported.

Can you give us some examples?

Yes. Remote work is a really good example of self-direction. The transition to remote work should make sure employees are heard and supported. The employer should check on them and their well-being regularly. Meetings and check-ups support the employee’s psychological safety and the employer should make sure they take place together with the employee. Clarifying goals and the job description itself is another crucial part of self-directed work support. 

What’s the best environment for a proper self-directed work culture?

Based on my own experience, a clearly defined working culture and values are crucial. These assets can help the employees mirror their own actions in unclear situations and the company values. Another important element is teamwork. When colleagues offer support for each other and are interested in how others are doing at work, self-direction has a good foundation. Remote work can be challenging in that regard, but if proper structures are created for that to happen, the result will be very rewarding.

This post is an adaptation from Momentous-Cresco's interview with Emilia Vesa, in Momentous-Cresco's blog.