In a piece in the Financial Times in January 2019 the author cites a talk by Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at London School of Economics, about his book ‘Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life’ at which he stated that to be truly content, people don’t need to be financially rich, they need “just enough”. This will not be news to everyone, but for some, it will fly in the face of the conventional view that more money is better. The reason Professor Dolan cites for this ‘just enough’ is enough viewpoint is that the more people earn, the more their working life erodes the time they spend with their children, family, and on their hobbies and personal vocations.
It is for this precise reason that agile working is attracting the attention of business leaders across start-ups, SME’s, and multi-national companies. For those not familiar with the term, ‘agile working’ is centred on the idea of leveraging technology to enable employees to work anytime and anywhere, provided the needs of the business are met. But this is far more than simply working from home; the agile workforce has greater flexibility in terms of location, time, and technology; essentially enabling the employee to mould their work around their life. Put simply, people no longer want to work Monday to Friday 9am – 5.30pm (or more likely 7pm), they want to get more done in fewer hours (of their choosing).
Why consider an agile workforce?
Done correctly, implementing an agile workforce can drive considerable benefits at every level, including:
Reduced illness, stress and burnout
Longer tenure – leading to less recruitment and training costs
Improved perception of the company as an employer
Lower wage cost – especially where employees are working 3 or 4 days per week
Puts more money into the workers pocket as they do not need to pay for commuting
Clearly for some enterprises, there are genuine and understandable objections to embracing this model of human resourcing. Concerns such as needing to ensure manpower is available in line with client needs and hours, whether staff will be available for team meetings, and privacy and security risks of working in public areas are valid concerns, but all are easily overcome.
Core times can be set, even if only 3 hours on 3 days per week, meaning that any collaboration or meetings can be scheduled. For firms with a need to provide consistent availability for clients, agile working can still be implemented by using rotas which ensure availability of expertise during required hours. Effective planning is the key.
As for security and privacy concerns, technology should already be in place to ensure adherence to best practice standards, such as encryption of laptop data, secure VPN connections, and multi-factor authentication. In addition, a thorough agile workforce policy guide should be created and enforced through regular training to ensure all workers understand what is expected of them, and measures they must take to protect themselves, the business, and their clients.
For those who worry that working fewer hours will lead to less productivity, there is now an abundance of evidence to prove the exact opposite is true. Productivity – output per working hour – increases with lower hours. A new report by thinktank, Autonomy, cites a case-study in a New Zealand based trustee company which implemented a four-day working week without loss in pay. The trial was considered, “an ‘unmitigated success’, as staff stress levels decreased (these were 45% pre-trial and 38% post-trial), productivity increased (job performance from the company was maintained over four days), and work-life balance improved significantly (54% pre-trial increasing to 78% post-trial). The success of the pilot led to the company installing a four-day working week practice on an ongoing basis.
What Can An Agile Workforce Do For Your Business?
According to the Institute of Leadership and Management, 84% of agile workers report “improvements to their work-life balance, but a lack of team identity can cause isolation and loneliness”. For any firm considering agile working, it is essential to provide managers with the correct skills and tools needed to allow them to manage their ‘dispersed’ team. For many who are only familiar with how to manage on-site teams, the challenge may not be inconsiderable. Alison Maitland, co-author of Future Work: Changing Organisational Culture for the New World of Work Agile, believes that agile working means managers need to let go of micromanagement of their team, and instead and become coaches and enablers. Indeed, learning how to manage a dispersed team is seen as essential to progress to senior leadership. There are a number of steps managers can take to instil a strong team identity alongside agile working:
Consider holding daily ‘scrum’ meetings, which can be undertaken through a mix of audio, video or face to face presence. Scrum meetings are kept short, to the point, and highly structured. This is an approach adopted by agile software developers which allows team members to connect with co-workers, discuss progress towards short term goals, seek assistance with any challenges, and outline what they plan to do next. This approach is proven to lead a robust team culture.
Create a clear shared plan – related to the ‘scrum’ meeting concept, it is essential that the team has clear objectives, deadlines and each member knows what need to do.
Arrange regular work and non-working meetings – Agile does not mean team members never meet. Indeed, there is nothing more effective in creating team cohesion that getting together to know each other, inside of work, and outside.
Technology is the enabler of agile – within your firm’s agile working policy document, outline the technologies available. It is essential that whatever technology is used, it is reliable and secure, to avoid wasted working time, missed deadlines, and frustrated workers and clients.
Proactively ensure agile working team members feel involved and happy – it is all too easy to miss the signs that a valued employee is struggling to cope. By getting to know each person, encouraging them to be open with you, and asking them directly how they are, you can gain valuable feedback. Remember, done well, agile working naturally leads to significant improvements in employee happiness and emotional resilience.
The agile workforce is here to stay. Many companies will still have offices in the future, but these may become less expansive as more employees work less hours in locations more suited to their needs and lives. In the past couple of years, the UK Government has recognised the transformative and economy-boosting potential of agile working (aka Smart working), creating a new code of practice on Smart Working (PAS3000). If you are moving towards agile working practices, you are in good company; many of the most innovative businesses are now realising that the traditional working week is as tired as the employees who work this way.
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