Is agile working the answer?

In our ever-changing world of work, management theories have had trouble keeping up with the speed of that change, and the ways of coping with the impact of these changes for workers. The ‘new’ solutions are often nothing more than a re-hash of old ideas (that may or may not have worked in the past) which is not in itself a criticism – most change is cyclical and re-inventing the wheel isn’t always a bad thing.

The idea of ‘flexible working’ has underpinned discussions about working practices for decades. Traditionally, standardisation with workers being treated as ‘units of production’ – a conveyor belt mentality – was seen as the panacea for running efficient and cost-effective organisations. Since then the pendulum has swung the other way. Flexitime – flexible start and finish times covering certain ‘core’ hours – has been part of the management speak lexicon for at least the past four decades; the concept was actually trademarked in 1971. Hotdesking may be seen as a more recent idea, but its origins date back to the 16th Century and the naval practice of ‘hot-racking’ where one sailor would vacate a bunk bed for use by another (so sleeping and working in shifts).

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, one of my heroes, Charles Handy, popularised the phrase ‘portfolio working’ – being employed by different businesses at the same time, often on a freelance basis. Handy’s book The Empty Raincoat was some brilliant crystal-ball-gazing into the future of work.

Behind all these concepts is the theory of making the best use of time and space.

Since the global financial crisis of 2007 at least, I’ve noted the rise of management-speak, business bullshit – call it what you like – that tends to put the focus on the individual worker’s behaviour, rather than that of the employer, as the potential remedy for inefficiency and under-use of resources in organisations of all shapes and sizes. This may be dressed up with words like ‘empowerment’ but, not surprisingly in the age of austerity, it’s more about cost-cutting than anything else.

We see increased use of phrases like ‘mobile working’. With the advent of technological advances, and the mobile phone in particular, not only can we work anytime, but we can work anywhere – at home, in our cars, in cafés. And if someone else is picking up the cost of heat, light and rent so much the better. In the name of increased efficiency and cost-savings in the wake of the financial crisis, a decade ago I also noticed the introduction of the phrase ‘smart working’. It was easy to say, sounded good but, in my experience, no one ever really defined what it meant (perhaps because we all already knew it was about getting people to do more for less).

And coupled with the idea of doing more for less, if that endangers out mental wellbeing we can now learn to be resilient – to bounce back whatever life and work throws at us. Resilience in technical circles is a measure of what stress it takes to break something… The NHS is awash with resilience training for staff which at least acknowledges that the service and the people who work in it are at breaking point.

This focus on the individual continues with ‘agile working’ which seems to differ from flexible working in that the latter is about what primarily suits the employer, which agile working is intended to (also) meet the needs of the employee. This is a 2013 definition…

Agile working is a way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose – with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints – to optimise their performance and deliver “best in class” value and customer service. 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.

Asking ‘Is agile working the answer?’ – the title of this blog post –  begs the question, what is it meant to achieve?

Cost-saving? Almost certainly, transferring core costs away from the centre and having them absorbed by others, often the employees (and owners of public meeting spaces such as cafes and bars).

Time-saving? Agile working, like home-working, implies less unproductive time spent travelling made ever more possible by technology. But I fear the reduction in face-to-contact with colleagues and customers may bring new costs (in terms of effectiveness) down the line.

Increasing productivity? More time ‘on the job’ – in your pyjamas at home late at night, on a laptop or mobile phone in your car (a mobile office) – is certainly more possible in theory but relies on the commitment of workers that will be increasingly managed at arm’s length. It also increasing blurs the line between work and play.

A happier workforce?  Being empowered and in greater control of our working conditions are objectively ‘good things’. But everyone is different, and many employees are happier working regular hours in a structured environment alongside colleagues they can see and bounce ideas off, rather than working alone with the freedom to decide when and where the job gets done.

At the heart of the debate about different ways of working is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, about balancing short and long-term gains, and the importance of the health of the individual relative to the health of the organisation (the two may not always go hand in hand).

Efficiency is about the relationship between inputs and outputs, effectiveness is about inputs and outcomes. In a service-based business, the first tends to be about quantity and profit, while the second – effectiveness – tends to be about quality and people. As is the case in politics, when budgets are squeezed short-term decisions may be made for financial expediency without due regard for long term cost (and potential future savings). Witness pressure on the NHS to treat symptoms of ill health rather than the causes.

Employees across the UK are being asked to accept unpalatable changes to their terms and conditions for the greater good – sustaining services, making sacrifices now for jam tomorrow. This is all about changing cultures and mindsets and the best ways to do this will be as various as the organisations needing to make those changes.

My primary concern about this, borne out in part by personal experience, is that short term sacrifice is rarely rewarded in the long term. This is not just for individuals that feel the pain most personally, but also for the organisations and causes that are the reason we get out of bed in the morning. The health of well-run organisations is intrinsically tied up with the health of those running them; if staff get burnt out and leave, I fear for the future.

Further reading on agile working http://www.nhsemployers.org/~/media/Employers/Documents/SiteCollectionDocuments/Agile%20Working%20Guide.pdf

2 thoughts on “Is agile working the answer?

  1. Pingback: Lazy language | Enterprise Essentials

  2. Pingback: This is a smart blog post | Enterprise Essentials

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