The new normal: how to unlock the potential of agile working

10 June 2020
Recent weeks and months have seen organisations across the globe successfully implement fundamental changes to their working practices. The shift to a remote way of working has by no means been easy for every business, but for many, it has been a rewarding experience.

Businesses have had to move quickly, and in many cases develop or at the very least step up their infrastructure improvement plans. Employers with minimal capability for home and remote working (for example, where employees were without laptops, or where there was a lack of a reliable VPN system) will now, in most cases, have the infrastructure to facilitate these options. This should be viewed as an investment – not a cost.

Indeed, if one positive can be drawn from the turbulent times of late, it is that employers have come to realise the benefits of homeworking, flexible working hours, and the further utilisation of technology, to achieve their business objectives better, as well as to boost employee morale.

In March 2020, commercial real estate company CBRE published a report opining that “workers today are setting up at coffee shops, in co-working spaces, on couches and at picnic tables – even when they travel.” Over the next decade, CBRE predicted this radical re-imagining of the workplace will accelerate. 

The acceleration has been phenomenal. Two months on from this report, global organisations such as Twitter are implementing permanent agile working practices, having transitioned from office-based to remote working.

“The past few months have proven we can make it work” was the official statement from Twitter – which will allow those of its employees who can work from home to do so indefinitely. Facebook, too, has confirmed its 45,000-strong workforce will be offered the opportunity to work from home on a permanent basis.

The findings of some large scale remote working studies have long supported a growing enthusiasm for agile working. For example, the world’s largest-scale study of this kind was carried out by CTrip, China’s largest online travel agency which at the time employed some 13,000 employees.

The study revealed that when employees work from home, there was:

  • A 13% increase in employee productivity
  • A 50% decrease in employee attrition rate (e.g. employees leaving CTrip); and
  • Overall increased work satisfaction for employees

Successful agile working practices can, in many cases, reduce or remove the need for businesses to rent office space – meaning fewer expensive property overheads. In addition to this, top talents are increasingly seeking flexible working opportunities.

However, while the potential benefits of agile working have seen a promotional push during this period, employers must also be aware of the potential pitfalls before implementing this growing global trend on a permanent basis.

Agile working has to make business sense for your specific organisation in ‘normal’ circumstances, as well as in extreme ones. Currently, many organisations will have devised their remote working practices with speed, following emergency government advice. 

As businesses manage through the current difficulties and build towards recovery, those who are considering an agile-working-based future must ensure careful planning. 

Here are five key areas that businesses should focus on:

Capability Businesses need to understand the current culture of the business, have a clear vision of what the business wants to achieve through agile working and ensure it has the necessary IT capabilities to realise this vision. This may involve employee surveys, IT audits and senior strategy meetings.

Practicality Not all businesses are suited to remote working. Plans must be devised in line with business models, objectives and day-to-day activities. For example, it may be unsuitable for some employees to work remotely, or for them to have flexible hours. Agile workers need to be proactive, self-directed and have a defined home office space.

Engagement Equally, it is not for certain that all employees will want to work from home. Some employees may associate remote working with social isolation, or fear to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Employee engagement through consultation and other forms is crucial when considering agile working in order to avoid employee relations issues.

Risk Key risk areas such as negative employee perceptions, difficulties with remote supervision, the health and safety of remote working staff and – critically – data security, must all be addressed to ensure successful implementation. Legal obligations, specifically around health and safety and data protection, should be a primary focus for all businesses.

Policy Finally, organisations seeking to transition to remote working permanently are strongly advised to ensure appropriate policies are implemented, and that employees receive training to make them aware of their obligations, as well as their rights.