Agile working is a term that has been increasingly bandied around over the past decade, but its meaning is often confused, used incorrectly, or misunderstood entirely. When implemented correctly, an agile strategy can revolutionise a company’s approach to work, enhancing the value that is created for customers, and creating an empowered, modern workforce who are aligned behind a common vision and mission.
Agile working is often incorrectly used to describe flexible working, but an agile culture is far greater than merely having the flexibility to choose when and where you work; it is a set of guiding principles which need to permeate the DNA of your organisation, from your leadership to the entry-level, and lead to numerous significant benefits. This article will outline the differences between agile working and flexible working, as well as providing a definition of, and guidance on how to implement, agile working practices, before exploring some of the barriers to successful implementation.
Flexible working policies have become ubiquitous in organisations around the world, and the benefits of encouraging your employees to choose when and where they work can lead to significant improvements in the culture of your company - not least of which is increasing work-life balance for your people. The concept of flexible working, however, ends there, and it has little impact on your employees view of work. According to an article published by RICOH, there are four key differences between flexible working and agile working.1
An agile working approach makes your organisation more flexible
A flexible working policy does not make your organisation more agile, an agile working approach, however, does make your organisation more flexible. A flexible working policy does not make your company any better at adapting to change, making timely decisions, or dealing with adversity, all of which are key benefits of an agile approach to working.
Employee-centric vs customer-centric
Flexible working makes your company more employee-centric, focussing on their work-life balance and ensuring they can choose the circumstances that suit them and their priorities most succinctly. Agile working, on the other hand, is more customer-centric, as it ensures that your employees are focussed on delivering value to your clients. Agile working focuses on outputs and results, removing any artificial measures of success, such as attendance and time.
Work as an activity rather than a place
A key distinction between flexible working and agile working is mindset. Flexible working creates habits, as employees are allowed to choose how and when they fulfil their duties. Agile working focuses on an agile mindset instead, encouraging a sharp focus on results and enacting a shift in the way that employees view work entirely. According to a whitepaper published by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), agile working fosters the mindset that work is an activity rather than a place. Simply being present isn’t enough.2
Meetings: a defining characteristic
The final difference between flexible working and agile working is the approach to meetings. Flexible working allows people to work remotely and at different times, which often leads to a reduction in meetings. Agile working, on the other hand, takes the view that meetings are crucial to collaboration. When handled properly, meetings are considered the most efficient and effective way to make decisions and enhance collaboration.
As a process, Agile was born in the software development community, but has since been applied to countless contexts outside of the world of technology and is slowly gaining ground there as well. So, what exactly is the definition of agile working?
Agile working optimises the way teams work together and jointly create added value for the customer. It enables teams to set goals autonomously and to achieve them through customized processes and the use of technology. An important focus of agile working is continuous learning and the ability to adapt to changing market conditions.
Therefore, agile working is multi-dimensional and does not offer a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Agile work only defines certain principles, but leaves a great deal of leeway and flexibility. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to pin down the true meaning of agile work and, as such, implementing agile work and creating an agile culture risks degenerating into what is a rather abstract task. This does not have to be the case, and we will now look in detail at exactly what agile working means in practice - and what it does not.
Implementing agile working practices can seem like a complex and insurmountable task. However, once the foundations are firmly in place, the process becomes far easier and more readily understood. According to Consultancy UK, there are four key steps to success in adopting agile working outside of software development:
Start by learning what agile working is, get clarity on why you want to implement an agile strategy, and set clear goals and objectives for your adoption of agile working. As with many organisational trends, companies have a tendency to follow the crowd and make changes before they fully understand what they are moving towards. Taking the time to understand what agile working is, what an agile culture looks like, and what the benefits of an agile strategy might be in the context of your organisation is a vital step before embarking on any agile transformation. It is also essential to have a clear idea of your goals and objectives for adopting agile working, so that your teams are working towards a common goal. In the absence of this, you face the risk of individuals working in support of their own agenda.
Begin working in sprints
Setting a clear timeline and outlining deliverables to be achieved within this timeframe is a great next step towards embracing agile working in your organisation. Sprints are commonly used in software development teams in order to hit key deadlines and ensure transparency and accountability across teams. By adopting this principle in organisations outside of the world of software development, you are able to benefit from the same improvements in collaboration between members of your teams.
Self-organise in multi-disciplinary teams
Self-organisation is a cornerstone of agile working, and it requires the business’ strategy and objectives to be broken down and applied at the team-level. The decisions on how to achieve these are then devolved to the teams themselves, which allows autonomy, the ability to experiment, learn from failure, and constantly learn and adapt. According to Consulting UK, ‘self-organising teams also require that its members are multi-skilled. If team members are too specialised they will eventually be confronted with obstacles: the team cannot cope with the sudden unavailability of team members, specialists become overburdened, and the team is unlikely to share knowledge and responsibilities.’
Agree how the work will be carried out
There are a number of agile methodologies at your disposal here, and it is worth exploring these and choosing the one that works best for each team. Some teams will carry out repetitive, process-oriented tasks, which means that a Kanban methodology might be sensible. Others teams might be better suited to a Scrum approach, which can be iterated depending on the different projects being undertaken.
Agile working requires an agile mindset, and this really does need to start at the top and cascade down. Leaders who fully embrace agile ways of working are more effective at galvanizing their employees to follow their example, and so it is important to get this right first. Whilst this will require an investment of your time, the benefits of agile working will pay dividends that surpass this initial start-up cost. With so much to gain from agile working, it is hard to imagine why so many organisations struggle to implement it, or resist it entirely. So, what are the barriers to adopting agile working?
Agile working has become associated with ideas of modernisation and swift changes in direction, however it’s much more than that. It is deeply connected to behaviour and attitude, and is something that needs to be built into every level of your organisation, as opposed to something that can be applied vaguely or sparingly. As such, the first obstacle to agile working is changing the attitudes and behaviours of your employees. This change can be uncomfortable and requires regular reinforcement, as well as leading by example. Leaders who embody the principles of agile working are far more likely to see their employees accept the changes to the organisational status quo.
The second key hurdle in adopting agile working in your organisation is embracing an agile culture. Whilst the days of the nine to five are numbered, it is still important to foster a sense of community and put structure in place to ensure your employees can still interact freely and openly. According to RICS, workforces need to feel secure and safe as their organisations transition to agile working, and this is a vital step. An agile culture shares the adaptability and flexibility of the general agile working principles, and so this, once again, needs to be built into the foundations of your business and communicated clearly among your people.
The final, and perhaps most pervasive, barrier to agile working is a lack of infrastructure. Organisations cannot expect their people to adopt an agile approach to working if they do not have the tools to do this successfully. In the 21st century there is no excuse for having a workforce who are ill-equipped to work successfully in agile team structures, as it is as simple as having a broadband connection and simple software that facilitates remote collaboration. Learn more about how Sherpany supports an agile transformation.
Organisations who embrace agile working are more adaptable, and by virtue of their ability to evolve and change, are more resilient to shifts in the external environment, which is something that is becoming increasingly valuable in the modern, turbulent world of business. According to an article published by The Telegraph, agile working ‘boosts productivity, [and] also helps businesses attract a more diverse range of talent.’3 The latter is especially salient as organisations scramble to attract the best in the next generation of talent, many of whom have grown up as digital natives and seek employment with companies that are less hierarchical and more dynamic.
In addition to this, employees who are empowered to choose how, when, and where they work are proven to be more innovative and more productive, and so it is unsurprising that agile organisations are responsible for so many advancements in technology, academia, and other aspects of our lives.
As we welcome increasing diversity into the workplace, we must adjust and adapt to allow for new ways of thinking, engaging, and ultimately working with one another. Agile working equips organisations, leaders, and employees to optimise their ways of working, tailoring practices to individual preferences and priorities, all in the pursuit of delivering optimal value to customers.
Learn more about agile working in the following:
1. ‘Flexible and agile working – do you know the difference?’, RICOH, 2019.
2. ‘Property in the Economy - Agile Working’, RICS, 2009.
3. ‘Is your team agile, or just unstructured?’, The Telegraph, 2018.