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When people discuss agile and flexible working instinctively the focus is on flexible hours, hot desking or home working. This leads me to ask do we have a real understanding of the terminology. So what is ”agile working”. How does it differ from “flexible working” and other terms often encompassed by the phrase “new ways of working”.

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) published an interesting paper on Agile Working which certainly gives plenty of thought to what agile working isn’t and what agility is, with some great examples, but it is difficult to extract a succinct definition of agile working. It does make clear that “work is an activity, not a place”, which has led some to the term “location independent working”. However, while “remote working” away from the main workplace is increasing not all work is independent of location, and agile working practices can equally be applied to fixed roles within the workplace.

Another interesting read is the FM World article Test of Agility which summarises (with some interesting phraseology) BT’s thinking and experience on the subject. For BT flexible working is first generation “statutory focussed” thinking, while agile working is the new paradigm, “a transformational tool” that is the cornerstone of their property and people strategy providing gains on cost, productivity and sustainability which benefit business, employee and customer.

One of the more straightforward and memorable descriptors is “Martini” working (for those old enough to remember the ad slogan): “anytime, any place, anywhere”. Most definitions of flexible working follow this tagline. But this is 2 dimensional, and “new ways of working” these days must be multi dimensional – not just limited to doing the same work in the same way at a different time and place. Indeed effective working is not so much about where or even when people work, it is more about how well they do it.

Agile working incorporates dimensions of time and place flexibility, but also involves doing work differently focusing on performance and outcomes. In fact agile is more than working differently, it is being different – transformational. The Agile Future Forum whose aim is to provide leadership and practical support to disseminate agile working practices, considers these practices across the 4 dimensions of: time (when do people work?), location (where do people work?), role (what do people do?) and source (who carries out work?).

Agile working is not new, but it is a “new way of working”. It can certainly be included under the umbrella term “smart working”, which is about utilising the benefits gained from changing work practices, deploying new technologies and creating new working environments. Behind the dissemination of new ways of working is progressive improvement in mobile, wireless and fixed line technology and related investments in fibre, bandwidth, server capacity, device capability, cloud computing and unified communication (or convergence). In fact the network or digital world is increasingly seen as the place of work with the consequent rise of people working in the “clouds” or “virtual world”.

You may ask where terms like “home working” and “mobile working” feature. These are essentially classed as Workstyles which relate to the place or location description in the concepts of agile and flexible working. “Hot desking” and “Touchdown” are other well used terms which are specific “work settings” in office workplaces supporting shared and mobile workstyles.

One of the reasons agile working is difficult to pin down is that it’s not prescriptive – there is no one size fits all – it has common themes but is essentially individual and involves choice in the how, what, where and when of working. Basically agile working embraces both the physical and digital “workplace” in empowering and supporting people to work where, when and how they choose to maximise their productivity, innovation and ultimately to deliver best value to the organisation. My definition of agile working was aired at the CoreNet Global Conference in Brussels  as long ago as September 2009:

Agile working is about bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).*

Unilever a major proponent of agile working, began the agile journey 5 years ago. Their approach is all about offering every employee choice and empowerment around where and when they work, as long as their job can be done – a culture that has meant removing the artificial measures of success, such as time and attendance, and focusing on results and performance. Unilever defines agile working as “an approach to getting work done with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints. It goes beyond just flexible working or telecommuting and focuses on eliminating the barriers to getting work done efficiently.”

Whatever the arguments over definition and terminology the goal of agile working is to create more responsive, efficient and effective organisations based on more balanced, motivated, innovative and productive teams and individuals – essential ingredients in surviving and thriving in the current economically challenged globalised world. Twentieth century methods are no longer sustainable in 21st Century organisations – as such agile working is no longer a fringe idea but a mainstream concept that no organisation can afford to ignore.

However, for many organisations the main barriers to agile working revolve around culture and mindset. Simply buying new technology and investing in new workspaces are not enough. Engaging with your workforce, empowering people in a relationship of trust and responsibility are the key. This involves change in organisational culture and individual mindset – particularly in senior and middle management – focusing on a shift to embrace the Agile Agenda, only then will organisations be able reap the full benefits of the new way of working.

To learn more about developing and implementing agile working initiatives – doing more with less  contact:

Paul Allsopp, The Agile Organisation.

* The Agile Organisation definition of agile working has been extensively used by other organisations in publications and glossaries as “the” definition of agile working- including NHS England, the NHS Employers Organisation, the Science Council, and the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion. 

This article has been referenced by many Companies from AON Group to Unilever. It also appears in Personnel Today: http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/articles/what-is-agile-working/ 

This article was Personnel Today HR Space most viewed Blog.