Blog | How to make agile working a business priority, by Alison Maitland

AnnaHope | 21 Oct

The landscape of work is changing fast. It’s only 21 years since the World Wide Web became freely available, yet today around 40 per cent of the world’s population is connected, transforming the way many jobs are done.

Virtual enterprises spring up overnight with no overheads, challenging established business models. Work and workers are sourced from almost anywhere. The workforce has changed too: for some time now, women have outnumbered men graduating from university. Many younger men want to be hands-on fathers and are seeking a different deal from work, as is the new generation of “digital natives”. At the other end of the age spectrum, people are retiring later and looking for more flexibility during those working years.

Despite these radical shifts, a lot of workplaces remain almost as rigid as a decade ago. Employees, particularly fathers, still struggle to gain access to even minimal flexibility at work. So while a growing band of pioneering organisations is adopting “agile working”, many others are lagging far behind, stuck with an industrial age model of work based on fixed time and place and management by control. People still have to ask their manager’s permission to go to the dentist, take a holiday or attend a funeral. Parents have the near impossible task of getting their children to school just as they are meant to be getting to work, ending up in traffic jams because so many others are doing the same.

It doesn’t have to be like this. To get this placed high on the business agenda, the arguments need to be directly linked to business priorities and the bottom line. How many businesses need to cut costs, or increase productivity, or attract and retain scarce skills? They could do all of these by adopting new ways of working.

The business benefits reported by the companies we’ve researched for our book Future Work are far-reaching. First, and most significant, is the increased productivity recorded when people are able to work at a time and place that best suits the work in hand, which means they feel trusted and empowered and also face fewer distractions. Second, new work styles can produce big cost savings through more efficient use of workspace, smarter meetings and reduced travel, which also benefits the environment. Third, companies that give people greater work autonomy and choice say they are more engaged, motivated and willing to take the initiative.

Other benefits of agile future work include: extended customer service and responsiveness; less risk of business disruption from external factors such as weather crises; access to a wider pool of talent; and an enhanced employer reputation.

We’ve profiled many organisations making the shift, including big companies such as BT, Gap, RBS, Swiss Re, and Unilever. Among parents benefiting from agile working at Unilever is Jamie Barnard, General Counsel for Global Marketing, Media and eCommerce, who works from home one day a week to have precious time with his twins. On these days he avoids his usual long commute to London and does the school runs so that his wife, who also works full time, gets a bit of time to herself. “Despite having twins, we’ve never had a nanny or a childminder,” he told me. “There is nothing routine about my life. The flexibility that agile working brings allows me to go with the flow. Whether it’s working in the evening or watching the kids’ nativity play during the working day, agile working makes modern life possible.”

What we’re talking about here is next-generation flexibility, or flexibility as the norm. It’s very different from what we generally see now in the form of flexible working policies. Practices such as part-time work, compressed working weeks, job shares and term-time working don’t challenge the old model of work. They are fringe adjustments, introduced as employee benefits, and as such are often viewed by operational managers as a cost and a burden.

Where we see a fundamental change in work culture taking place, it is because senior leaders are driving this as a business strategy, and shifting the focus from hours and face-time to performance and outcomes. They have recognised that people’s lives beyond work are important, and that enabling individuals to find the right balance for themselves will pay dividends in terms of productivity and motivation. They want managers to coach and support their teams, not micromanage them.

However, change won’t be sustainable if it is imposed on people. Middle managers, the traditional gatekeepers of flexible working, need to be on board so that they in turn encourage new work styles in their teams. They need to be able to see the benefits, not only for the business but also for themselves. A useful starting point in training managers is to get them thinking about what makes them outperform at work, at what times they feel most productive, and how they deal with conflicts between work demands and family or personal time. At the point where they come clean about hiding in the bathroom with the BlackBerry on holiday to avoid a family row, real behavioural change can start to happen!

Future Work: Changing Organizational Culture for the New World of Work, Alison Maitland & Peter Thomson (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).