How to deliver and sustain an agile working environment

The world of work is changing pretty rapidly. Many organisations are beginning to embrace flexible and agile work models, some with the intention of empowering employees to work more effectively, some trying to “sweat their assets” and others responding to a growing demand for more flexibility in working arrangements.

Without criticising the apparent willingness to refresh the way things are done (always a good thing!), it appears that some of those championing workplace transformation projects are still unsure of what they are really trying to achieve, maybe it is an agile working environment.agile working environment

This isn’t helped by a lack of clarity about the terminology – flexible, agile, activity based, smart, intelligent are all terms used by organisations to badge their initiatives. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, so long as you are clear about what is in scope for your organisation – otherwise the confusion is unhelpful and counterproductive.

Let’s say that an “agile working environment” is one where people have a range of places they can choose to work, to meet the needs for their particular tasks. This may or may not include people working from home or working at different times of day, depending upon what you are trying to achieve. Here are four things to think about…

Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve

Everyone involved in the initiative, from corporate sponsor to the wider workforce need to understand WHY the organisation is introducing an agile working environment. Is it to reduce cost?; to improve talent attraction and retention?; or is it to support individual and collective performance? And they also need to know what ‘agile’ means in your organisation. Once you’re clear about what you’re trying to achieve and have a vision for what you’re trying to create, the next step is setting up for success.

Build a case for change

People don’t just change habits of a lifetime because they’re told to. They change because they’ve bought into the benefits of doing so. On that note, you need to develop an engaging business case, backed by real evidence, that addresses the following questions:

  • Why are we making the change?
  • What changes are we making?
  • How will things work in the future (and how will we get there)?
  • When will things change?
  • What do we expect from people?
  • Who will support them through the change?
  • What’s in it for them?

If you can’t tell people the “what, why, how and when”, then don’t be surprised if they are reluctant to get involved, let alone commit to the change. Many will simply keep their heads down and wait for this “agile working thing” to blow over.

Work together

Unlike many other business projects, introducing agile or “new ways of working” cuts across many disciplines (e.g. IT, FM, RE, HR, change management). Each discipline has its own way of doing things – but for an agile initiative to be successful, they need to ensure their processes align and support each other, so the flow of information and touch points are coordinated. It’s essential that workplace users hear a coherent story, preparing them for the change.

Everybody involved in delivering the change needs to understand it in depth and to be personally comfortable with it… because it’s going to require them to change their approach too, and work with others in a way they’ve probably never had to before. To be successful, the workplace delivery workstreams need to work closely as one team, setting aside departmental silo mentalities and working to shared objectives and joint success criteria.

Change is forever

In agile change programmes, lots of energy goes into preparing for the change but often the project team disbands and leaders start to focus on something else before the behavioural change is fully embedded. If you are not careful, the behaviour starts to morph back to the old ways.

It’s important to recognise that behaviours are a set of habits people grow accustomed to over time and they feel very comfortable, requiring little energy to repeat each time. When asked to do things differently, much more mental energy is required, which is more tiring. People often prefer to stick to old habits if they can get away with them. Supporting the change involves both preparation and follow through into the future, to embed the new behaviours as the new normal.

In helping workplace specialists to tackle agile workplace change, we developed a training course which provides a fast track simulation of how to deliver and sustain agile working. This Agile Working Bootcamp – part of a range of Performance Innovation Network (PIN) activities – has been run across the world and the sessions remind everyone involved that the process of leading behavioural transformation is no easy feat, unlike the physical workplace changes which can seem relatively straightforward by comparison. But it is possible!

By Karen Plum, director of research & development, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA)