How Much Discretion Should You Give to Employees when Choosing Technology?

11 Dec 2014

Employees always have a preference, especially when it comes to developers, for the tools they want to use on the job. Whether it's a text editor, a preferred hosting solution, or a sketch tool, they have an opinion about everything. In this day and age, companies want to give employees freedom. Employees have even come to expect freedom, especially when it comes to developers. Is there a limit to this freedom? Should there be a limit?

First, let's break the types of tools down into categories: big impact and small impact. This is based on the fact that some companies let people choose the more "insignifcant" tools for their job but definitely have a say in the tools that would affect everyone. There are companies who want to have a say in every piece and try to micro manage, but these two categories represent separate sections where lines must be drawn.

Big impact choices

These types of choices are going to affect the entire company or department. If one employee likes a specific tool to host their code for sharing with other employees but it differs across the department, that's going to be an issue. This is a good example when the company, or manager should get the opinions and research all available choices and pick one for everyone so work can be done more collaboratively. Choosing one tool also prevents files from being lost or corrupted in transferring formats that impede work getting done.

Tools like file sharing with DropBox or Google Docs is often more difficult. For formal documents, like lab reports, this is often a company-wide solution that the executive suite chooses. For informal documents and communication, the answer can sometimes be broken up by departments or just lumped in with the formal system to make it easier. If it's a large corporation that likes to do things "by the book" then chances are that employees won't have much freedom. If the company likes to distribute power, employees might have more leeway.

Is this going to change?

As more and more technologies present themselves to employees and they don't have just Microsoft Office to choose from, companies are going to have to reconsider their previous choices and be flexible. I think that as long as the end result format is agreed upon, the tools used to get there should be at the discretion of the department or group. This should take into account the budget, which we will look at later.

Smaller impact choices

The other side of the coin is the smaller, low impact choices that employees have. This includes things like sketch tools, places to get pictures for blogs and other smaller choices. While it is important to make sure each choice lines up with corporate marketing/design guidelines, how a person gets to the final result may not be as important. I would argue that giving discretion in this area can improve productivity. If employees can choose these tools with not cost associated, then they should be allowed the freedom. If the tools cost money, like stock photos instead of free ones, then that might require more thought.

Letting employees have as much freedom as possible in their jobs makes them happier and more willing to work harder. If you take away any choices they may have, they won't be motivated or productive and may actually start taking liberties on their own. Now let's talk about how this affects the company budget.

How does the Budget come into play?

Most companies allocate funds to each department to spend on tools at their discretion. It would just take too long if each department had to run everything by upper management, so they have long since figured out that distributing this power was beneficial. As far as departments go, employees might have more luck depending on how open-minded the leadership is on new ideas.

It might be beneficial to let employees choose their tools if they are free and don't affect other people, like I mentioned above. If the choices will affect multiple people, it's best to let each person have input and then make an executive decision. The point is to let employees have a say and not just go around them because it will come back to haunt you. Employees should be able to decide what tools they use because they are the ones who will have to use it daily, so they probably know what is the better option than upper management who has very little context to make a good decision.

Do you get to decide these things at your job? How much control do you have to choose the tools you use?