Agile working is a strategic approach that enables employees to work where, when and how they wish to some extent, provided there is a benefit to both the employee and the organization.
Summary by The World of Work Project
Agile working is a collection of practices that introduce flexibility into when and where employees work. To a lesser extent it also currently includes flexibility in the specific tasks that individuals complete, and in the types of contract arrangements that organizations have with people providing work for them. Some people use the terms flexible and agile working fairly interchangeably, though we prefer the term agile.
Agile working includes remote working, which has quite a long history. While in the not too distant past agile working was perhaps seen as a sort of perk for employees, it’s now seen as a strategic priority for organizations. Indeed, in 2020 with the corona virus pandemic disrupting the world, remote working became a necessity for many.
A key point about agile working is that it should provide benefits for organization as well as for the employees of the organization, which we cover later.
The Four Pillars of Agile Working
For the purposes of this post, we consider agile working to have four key pillars. These are of different importance to different organizations, but all appear to be gaining both popularity and strategic importance.
Pillar 1: When People Work
Increasingly organizations are seeing benefits in letting employees work in non-conventional time patterns. This allows employees flexibility to suit their life circumstances, and allows organizations to align their labor supply to demand.
Examples of agile working patterns include: regular part time hours, compressed hours, flexi-time, staged retirement, job sharing, seasonal working and annual hours contracts.
Pillar 2: Where People Work
With continued improvements to communication technologies, where people work becomes less important for organizations, provided employees remain effective.
Examples of agile working location arrangements include: Hot-desking in a fixed office, working from a shared space, mobile working, multi-site working arrangements, home based or remote working or any mixture of the above.
This approach to working in different locations is often known as remote working, and has an interesting history.
Pillar 3: What People Do
As many roles and organizations become more complex and faster paced, some leaders are also seeing benefits through allowing employees a greater say in relation to what they actually do and who they work with.
Examples of this include: Self-selection of tasks, job-bidding processes and internal markets, secondments, job-rotations, flexi-teams and project teams.
Pillar 4: Who Is Employed
Organizations are also increasingly looking to gain control over their labor costs and supply. With this has come changes to who organizations turn to in their efforts to meet their labor demands.
Examples of labor types can include: permanent employees, outsource providers, fixed-term contracts, interim contracts, freelance suppliers and all things of the “gig economy”.
Risks and Benefits of Agile Working
As we said at the start of this post, agile working should bring benefits to both the organizations that employee it, and the individuals that work for them. Of course, like all things that bring benefits, agile working can also bring risks.
We list some of these risks and benefits below, but think it’s worth pointing out that in our view the largest risks for employees relate to mental health and the largest risks to organizations relate to control.
- Reduction in control over employees
- Remote management may not work
- Introducing any change is difficult
- Increased IT reliance and data risks
- Cost savings on premises and labor
- Able to quickly focus on new demands
- Attract and retain top talent
- Increase diversity and inclusion
- Increase engagement and productivity
- Blurring the distinction between work and personal time
- Increased hours and being “always on”
- Isolation and mental health challenges
- Paying for more costs of production (equipment / electricity)
- Less travel time and effort, meaning more time for work or personal life
- More autonomy and control of own work
- Working at home brings some benefits around space and environment, as well as personal admin
Is Agile Working Right for You?
Agile working clearly brings benefits to both individuals and organizations, but it also clearly brings risks. It’s not the type of thing that anyone should jump into without considered assessment.
Agile Working for Individuals
Many people like the sound of agile working and think it sounds exciting and flexible, which it is. What many people don’t realize though is that it can really be quite lonely and isolating as well. Many people benefit from the social aspects of work and don’t pay enough attention to those benefits when considering flexible and agile working.
The ultimate decision on whether Agile and flexible working is right for you is a personal one, but it’s definitely one worth spending some time on as changing your working arrangements can fundamentally change your role. If you do want to think more about whether agile working is for you, we’d suggest starting by coming up with a list of pros and cons, and by speaking to people who currently work in an agile way to learn from them.
If you’ve thought about agile working and would like to pursue it, you need to speak to your line manager. They may be supportive, they may not. You may need to provide a business case to support your proposal, you may not. However you end up approaching the situation with your line manager, we recommend starting with a small change first and testing that to see how it works. If things go well you can broaden your agile working arrangements. Remember though, agile working needs to be right for both for you, and for the organization you work for.
Agile Working for Organizations and Leaders
Agile working is increasingly popular and effective for organizations, and many leaders are looking to implement it either across their whole organizations, or across specific teams or functions. Before looking to do so though, there are several factors that need to be considered.
Does the type of activity that your organization spends most of its time doing lend itself well to agile working? Or would it be a “squeeze” to identify benefits for employees and the organization and to make agile working part of your strategy?
Do you have the communications, collaboration and information sharing tools needed to make Agile working a success? Are your teams confident using them, and are they reliable and secure enough for you to depend on them?
Do your leaders understand agile working, see its benefits and want to make it work? Will they role-model it and can they manage well in an agile environment? Do they really know what their teams deliver, and can they measure real outputs, not just time spent on tasks?
Is there enough trust in your organization to embed agile working? Does it cope well with change? Does it value empowerment and will it provide the support teams and individuals need to overcome the inevitable set-backs they’ll face while trying to become agile?
Policy and Process
Do you have the processes and policies you need to have in place to make agile working work? Can you communicate what agile working means for you, demonstrate that it is fair to all and be transparent about how you implement it and make it work?
Sometimes it’s fun to look forward as well as backwards. This podcast on the future of work might be interesting:
The World of Work Project View
Working in an Agile or flexible way can bring some great benefits to both employees and organizations. There can, however, be large risks associated with it and organizations and individuals need to make sure that it is right for them and works for them in the long term. In some instances, the need for cost savings requires organizations to make some of these changes, but it’s important to remember that though some costs are saved, others may increase. From an individual perspective, individuals need to consider any potential impact on their mental health and well-being.
There are also larger questions associated with agile and flexible working around the future of work and how our societies manage the relationships between individuals and organizations. The boundaries between work and “life” may be blurred. “Scope-creep” in relation to working hours is a real risk (if you can work any time, are you working all the time?), and there are some complex questions to be answered around who pays for and who benefits from the means of production (e.g. computers, mobile devices, rental costs) in agile and flexible work.
Despite all the factors that need to be considered, we think agile working is a very useful way of working and almost certainly here to stay. We suggest that most people should trial it to see if it works for them.