Agile Working: A Better Flexible Work Model for Workers and Employers

Source: Freepik

Agility: it’s more than just another term to add to your list of favorite (or most hated) business buzzwords.

It’s also different than specific methodologies like agile project management or agile software development. What are we talking about? Agile working, a phrase used to describe a type of flexible work that benefits both workers and employers.

What is agile working?

When an employer offers flexible work schedules or flex time, it’s usually the ability to work from home once in awhile or have flexible office hours. And it’s often framed as a benefit or perk for specific positions within a company.

Agile working is different from this type of flexible work policy. Flexible working assumes that work happens in a certain way — say, from 9 to 5 at a company’s office — and if employees have the benefit of any sort of flex time, it gives them permission to temporarily work outside of that norm.

With an agile work environment, on the other hand, flexibility is the norm rather than the exception — maximum flexibility and minimal constraints that empower workers to choose when, where, and how they want to work to meet individual and organizational goals.

Rather than just giving employees control over the time and location of their work (which some flexible and work-from-home policies do anyways), the agile approach adds autonomy to the equation. But that doesn’t mean a chaotic work environment or lack of managerial oversight.

The core feature of agile work is that it’s mutually beneficial to both employees and employers. As John Eary, a consultant at JEC Professional Services, explains in his definition of agile working on LinkedIn:

“The goals of organisations in adopting agile work are to create a more responsive, efficient and effective organisation, which improves business performance and increases customer satisfaction. By empowering their employees to work how, where and when they choose, there is evidence that they increase their productivity and provide service improvements by working in a way that suits them best.”

What are the goals of agile work?

One of the key selling points of an agile work model is that it’s a win-win situation, as Eary outlined in the quote above. It offers significant benefits for both employees and employers, which we’ll get into in the next section. But this isn’t just about making people’s personal or professional lives more pleasant. A flexible work model can achieve results that are much more difficult — if not impossible — in traditional work environments.

Let’s look at some of the goals and results of implementing agility in your workplace:

Organization-wide responsiveness and adaptivity: When team members aren’t limited by location or predetermined office hours, the whole organization is empowered to be much more flexible and responsive to changing needs and situations. For example, if employees are located across multiple timezones, it becomes much easier to provide extended support hours to customers or work around the clock to meet a tight deadline.

Employee productivity and job satisfaction: When performance is measured by activity and output, rather than logging a certain number of (potentially unproductive) hours or being at a desk at a certain time, workers are encouraged to spend their time on important tasks that advance organizational goals, optimizing their schedules around times when their personal productivity and energy are at their peak.

Studies have shown that remote or location-independent workers are more productive and happier than their in-office counterparts. And when employees are more fulfilled and engaged at work, this creates a feedback loop that leads back to the first goal of increased organizational responsiveness and performance: when workers get more done, the whole company benefits.

As the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (ENEI) explains in its guide to agile working, “Where employees are given the autonomy and empowerment to choose where and when they work, as long as their job can be done, a culture is created that removes the artificial measures of success, such as time and attendance, and focuses on results and performance.”

ENEI also points out that while not every position is suited to complete flexibility, nearly all jobs can integrate flexibility in one of four categories: time, location, role, or source (who does the work — work-sharing, contracts, freelance, etc.)

What are the benefits of an agile work environment?

Workplace agility offers significant and separate benefits for both businesses and individuals. Let’s briefly run through some of them:

For workers

Improved work-life balance: This can refer not just to workers having more control over how they spend their time, but also to something Eary calls “work-life integration.” This term acknowledges that modern technology has made the separation between work and personal time more fluid. Many workers interested in flexible work view this as a positive development: they have the freedom to work evenings or weekends if so inclined and are “able to ‘wrap’ their work activities around high priority social and personal activities.”

Self-determination: In many traditional work environments, perks like having the discretion to determine when and where you work (i.e. not being chained to a desk), are reserved for executives and other senior positions. An agile environment spreads the benefits to all levels of the organization, which produces…

Increased job satisfaction and personal productivity: Workers who have control over their own work situations are more likely to fully invest themselves in their tasks. Having the power to choose when, where, and how you work most productively is motivating; it allows you to minimize distractions and use your skills to the best of your ability.

For businesses

Cost savings: A fully remote workforce means no expenses for office space or equipment, and the ability to hire from areas where competitive salaries are less for equally talented candidates.

Global Workplace Analytics reports that the average business would save $11,000 per person per year if staff with remote-compatible jobs worked from home just half the time. Furthermore, a poll of 1,500 technology professionals revealed that 37% would take a pay cut of 10% if they could work from home.

Unlimited talent pool: Worldwide, 40% of employers report difficulty filling jobs, according to a 2016 survey by ManpowerGroup — the highest percentage since 2007.

Source: ManpowerGroup

Some growing knowledge-based sectors, like the tech industry, are experiencing an unprecedented talent shortage. Much of this problem is due to employers’ longstanding hiring practices of limiting their search for qualified candidates to a certain city or region. Hiring searches with a global reach eliminate this problem.

Increased ability to attract and retain high-quality talent: The demand for and interest in flexible work arrangements is on the rise. According to the Indeed Hiring Lab, interest in flexible work increased by more than 40% between 2013 and 2015 (across 12 countries, based on data collected from Indeed’s job search engine).

When it’s increasingly common for experts in a variety of fields do consulting or freelancing on the side or even full time, many of the most qualified candidates are looking for flexibility. Businesses who don’t offer it may get left behind.

Cliff Pollan, the CEO of Sococo, the company behind the online workspace and collaboration tool of the same name, puts it this way:

“The ability to recruit talent anywhere in the world, to me as CEO, is massive. My team is the most important factor in our success. I need to be able to select from the best talent the world has to offer, and not be limited by something as irrelevant as physical location.”

A location-independent model also boosts employee retention. Employees who need to move cross-country or abroad aren’t forced to leave the company or ask to be relocated. They simply continue with business as usual, from whatever location they like.

Improved staff productivity and performance: As mentioned earlier, research confirms that workers who have flexibility in their work simply perform better than those who don’t.

As an example, a 10-month study led by the Stanford Graduate School of Business and conducted at a billion-dollar Chinese company compared the performance of call center workers doing identical work at home versus those working in office cubicles. The study found that work-at-home staff were more productive: got more done, worked more hours, took shorter breaks, and used less sick leave.

Extended or around-the-clock business hours: Having staff in multiple locations with varied work schedules give businesses increased ability to be nimble, quickly accommodate unexpected or unusual situations, or adapt to demanding projects or customers.

However, there are some trade-offs for both sides. Employers may need to let go of some ingrained HR policies like strictly defined working hours and time-off policies. They may also have to initially invest in some systems and technology that enable the remote teamwork that is essential to an agile work environment and develop a strategy for effective communication and collaboration. And workers may need to adjust to the increased responsibility and self-regulation.

The rise of flexible work policies

Modern technology has enabled an explosion in flexible work options — and more and more businesses are jumping on board. In February 2016, Vodafone released the results of its “Flexible: Friend or Foe?” study of over 8,000 employers and employees in 10 countries. The companies surveyed included small- and medium-sized businesses, multinational corporations, and public sector organizations.

Source: Vodafone

The results are a clear indication of the rise of flexible work:

  • 75% of companies had introduced flexible work policies (82% in the U.S.).
  • Of those, 61% reported increased profits and 83% reported improved productivity as a result of the flex work options.
  • In the U.S., 61% of organizations attributed flexible work to an improvement in teamwork and 77% to an improvement in staff morale.

Demand for “gig economy” jobs — the close cousins of flexible jobs that include self-employment, contract and freelance jobs, and other types of non-salaried positions — has also seen dramatic growth.

Source: Indeed Hiring Lab

But what does all this mean for the future of work? Vodafone Americas President Chuck Pol suggests that these statistics “[highlight] a significant shift in the modern workplace. More than ever before, US employers are telling us that flexible working boosts profits while their employees tell us they’re more productive. At the core of this trend are the new technologies that are reshaping every sector. . . . These findings prove we have entered an era where work is what you do, not where you go.”

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