Agile working - June 2011

How flexible thinking and agile working can improve your business

When people discuss agile and flexible working, instinctively the focus is on flexible hours, hot desking or home working. This leads us to ask if we have a real understanding of the terminology. So what is ‘agile working’? And how does it differ from ‘flexible working’ and other terms often encompassed by the phrase ‘new ways of working’.

The RICS published a very 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’s difficult to extract a succinct definition of agile working. Another interesting read is the FM World article Test of Agility, which summarises BT’s thinking and experience on the subject. For BT, flexible working is first generation thinking, while agile working is the new paradigm, ‘a transformational tool’ that’s the cornerstone of their property and people strategy, providing gains on cost, personnel productivity and sustainability.

One of the more straightforward and memorable descriptors is ‘Martini’ working (for those old enough to remember the ad slogan): ‘any time, 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. Agile working, on the other hand, incorporates time and place flexibility, but also involves doing work differently – it is transformational. Indeed one organisation (Tameside MBC) has named their programme ‘Working Differently’.

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 using 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, cloud computing and convergence. In fact the network 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.

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.  My definition of agile working was aired at the CoreNet Global Conference in Brussels 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).

Whatever the arguments over definition and terminology, the goal of agile working is to create more flexible, responsive, efficient and effective organisations that are based on more balanced, motivated, innovative and productive teams and individuals. These are essential ingredients in surviving and thriving in the current economically challenged world.

This article was written by Paul Allsopp of The Agile Organisation