What is agile working, and can it transform your work and personal life?

When I started my career in the late 1990s working from home was gaining huge traction.  The advent of ISDN (the successor to dial-up internet for those old enough to remember it) allowed individuals to be freed from the shackles of the office.  With the use of VPN connections, users could remotely access work applications, corporate intranet, and computer folders.

It is easy to forget that working from home is not new.  Go back 100 years, and ‘piece work’ was commonplace in households across the UK.  In medieval times, many families lived in homes from which they could make products and provide services, and in the middle ages, ale brewers, weavers and blacksmiths often worked from their homes.

How does agile working differ from home working?

In contrast to ‘home working’ or ‘hot desking’, agile working is not merely about where one works, rather it is about having flexibility in all aspects of employment.

According to NHS Employers, agile offers “a way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose. It uses communications and information technology to enable people to work in ways, which best suit their needs without the traditional limitations of where and when tasks must be performed”. Others have coined the term, ‘Martini working’; “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”.   Of course, if you are under 30 years of age, at this point in the article, you are forgiven if you need to Google ‘Martini 1980 ad slogan’ and ‘what is dial-up internet?’.

What’s in it for businesses and organisations?

Firms and businesses such as Unilever have been utilising agile working for many years.  Prior to the implementation of agile working, Unilever had discovered that 63% of workers were disengaged at work, and 24% were actively disengaged.  They also acknowledged that to help their workers become more productive, engaged, creative, and empowered, a complete cultural change was necessary. Implementing a global agile working programme was their solution to this problem.

According to Jane van Zyl, chief executive of UK work-life balance charity, Working Families, “there is evidence that people who are working part-time and flexibly can be among the most productive people in an organisation.”

Last year, a report written by Deloitte and Timewise (the latter being a recruitment company for part-time workers) found that employers who fail to take agile working seriously risk losing workers; particularly millennials and mothers of young children.  As such, agile/flexible working arrangements make workplaces more attractive for a wider range of individuals.  The report also recommends recording the success of agile working, and in doing so, sharing best practice across teams.  By creating specific targets for line managers in relation to flexible working, positive changes are more likely to be achieved over time.

What does agile working look like?

Agile working is the melding of employee flexibility and autonomy.  Autonomy in this sense means that employees can decide how to structure their day such that they achieve their employment and personal needs. This might mean that rather than starting work at 9am, an individual may decide to take their children to school and then go to the gym until 10am.  They may work fewer hours on one day, and more on another.  For larks, it might mean they start work at 7am.  The options are endless.  The key is that they get to decide how best to use their time to achieve their employment obligations.

When you consider the average worker is only productive for approximately three hours of an eight-hour day, a great deal of wasted working time can be converted back to personal time; thereby enriching their life considerably.  A study of 2,000 employees on workplace online habits and productivity by vouchercloud.com discovered that much of the standard working day is simply wasted on activities such as reading the news, checking social media, making coffee, or gossiping; time which could be used to great personal benefit by those employees.

Overcoming the challenges of agile working

The main challenges of agile for any organisation include:

  • Social isolation – this can be overcome by encouraging regular video and face to face team meetings.
  • Security and data breaches – with a workforce operating from a range of locations, traditionally there were risks of losing files and disclosure of sensitive company information – especially in public forums. Implementing effective policies and procedures in relation to agile working can ensure this never happens.  Technology can play a vital role in ensuring security, for example, by using encryption and multi-factor authentication.
  • Unreliability and fragility – companies invest millions each year in IT infrastructure, in large part to ensure reliability and business continuity. Agile working can mean that workers are reliant on unreliable wi-fi connections and poor mobile signals – which may, in turn, prevent them from accessing essential business applications, digital files, virtual meetings, and video conferences.  It is therefore important to consider how, as part of your agile working policy, these limitations can be overcome.

In conclusion

Ultimately, allowing staff to be autonomous in how, when, and where they get their job done is about treating valued workers as trusted human beings, not robots.  Given agile working has the power to cut costs, increase productivity, help workers to be happier, healthier, more engaged and creative, and all while helping save the environment (by reducing carbon emissions associated with commuting), the case for its wide-spread adoption is hard to deny.

BDBF are employment law specialists. Contact us confidentially on 020 3828 0350 for employment law advice.