The future of work is agile

20 March 2019

By Alison Maitland

I recently came across a company called ConsenSys that develops applications for blockchain technology. Its work model intrigued me. According to its website, the 1000+ employees around the world decide their own schedules, work wherever they want to, and pursue projects that interest them. With all this freedom comes responsibility to support their teammates.

The company, which describes itself as a ‘mesh network of purpose’, was named by LinkedIn as one of the 50 most sought-after start-ups in the US last year.

Is this the future of work? Self-managing organisations are certainly coming into vogue. Yet this model still represents a stark contrast with the daily experience of many workers faced with congested commutes and long hours in concrete office buildings.

What enables or blocks the spread of agile working in big organisations? And what can we do to speed up the shift to more human-centred work styles?

Use the business case

The business case is one enabler. We know from many studies, set out in our book Future Work, that employers benefit from higher productivity, reduced office and travel costs, greater employee motivation and enhanced reputation (among other things) when they give people choice about how to work, and when they reward outcomes rather than hours.

Another enabler of agile working is trust – and the absence of trust is often the reason why organisations do not adopt it wholesale. Resistance can happen at senior level, but more often it’s with middle managers who fear that people won’t work hard if they are working virtually (e.g. from home), or that they will abandon the office altogether if they are given the freedom to choose their work location.

The evidence shows that people are much more likely to overwork – because they want to reward the trust placed in them – and continue to ‘come into work’ when needed for meetings and collaborative activities. Despite this, some managers’ lack of trust, or fear of losing control, is tenacious. So this needs to be addressed directly before progress can be made towards agile working.

Develop new habits

It’s not only managers who can find change difficult. Many individual workers do too. Our lives are so ruled by the clock that it is hard to shake off the belief that we should be at our desks on Wednesday afternoons, not playing squash or doing the shopping – even when we know we can easily complete the task later in the day, and  we need the exercise (or the provisions)!

To become more agile, we have to shake off our old ways of thinking. Here, role model leaders play a crucial part, demonstrating how agile working is done. They communicate openly and transparently with their people about why the change is happening, and what’s in it for them. Without open communications, employees who have long-established working patterns may find the introduction of ‘agile’ working threatening, and even fear their jobs are at risk.

Tackle systemic barriers

It’s also important to tackle underlying structures that can hold up change. These may be standard HR processes that hamper efforts to tailor roles to individuals, or contracts and performance metrics that are based on hours rather than agreed outcomes.

There are organisational biases and assumptions that are hard to see, such as the belief that people lack commitment if they do not work long hours. Such hidden biases can block talented people’s career advancement unless they are unearthed and tackled head on.

Another obstacle is the sheer difficulty of driving change in large organisations. There are plenty of small organisations that adopt agile working easily. Big companies could gain ideas by talking to them. How about adopting some of the ‘go-for-it’ spirit of young enterprises? What if HR leaders were bolder and more innovative? Why not advertise all roles in the company as agile?

Does ‘agile’ work for everyone?

It’s important to take individual differences into account, and provide as much support as possible to those who need it. People on the autism spectrum, for example, are likely to need more structured work environments, specific instructions, and reassurance in stressful situations. Agile working may throw up problems for them, which need to be carefully managed.

In our TRUST guidelines for agile work, set out in Future Work, the final T stands for ‘Treat people as individuals’. Yes, everyone is different. Thanks to digital technology, businesses can now enable the early bird in the team to work early and the night owl to work late, benefiting from their most productive times of day. Leveraging these differences can lead to higher output, with greater client satisfaction, and higher team engagement.

International organisations also need to take account of cultural differences. Many European countries respect work boundaries more highly than the UK, with tighter regulation of working hours. French employees, for example, have the right to switch off their devices outside working hours to avoid digital overload.

There are also differences between sectors, with some that are highly regulated, or require extremely high levels of security. Can agile working work here? Consulting front line staff on whether, and how, it could work is a good starting point, rather than assuming it can never happen.

Agile is the future for many businesses, and reluctant managers need to develop their capacity for trust. As one executive running a successful, agile-working team put it to me, ‘I trust every single person who works for me. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t want them to work for me.’

This is an edited version of an article first published by IWE (International Women of Excellence) in March 2019

©Alison Maitland 2019, all rights reserved

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