19th October 2017 Future of work Thoughts By

Agile Workplaces. You can delay but you cannot escape.

A guest post from Anne Cantelo, Founder of Onyx Media, on the compelling case for agile working practices.

When I was 21 I was appointed to a role in the civil service where I was put in charge of a small team.  One of that team spent most of their day cutting and pasting updates to overseas tariff information, even though it was already stored elsewhere.

In my next job there were more than 20 file categories, and under each category, there was a file called “Papers in which we have no interest”.  In both cases people were shocked by the little blonde girl asking; “Why do we do this, it makes no sense?” and then making the obvious changes.  But are those changes so obvious?

This early experience has been repeated throughout my working life. Too many people prefer to keep doing things in the same way, whether it now makes any sense or not.  They think that if something has history, has always been done in a certain way, then it must be right.  Are you any different?

Have you ever asked yourself the following questions?  Why do you commute to work every day, sit at a desk, head down, blasting out e-mail, having skype calls with international clients and colleagues, then travel all the way home again?

What benefit is there to sitting in the same room as some of the people you work with? Why do you need to work the same hours as them?   Is your body clock the same as those of your colleagues (are you productive at the same time)?  Do you really like working for just one employer, or would you prefer to mix things up a little?

Until the 18th Century, there were no offices or factories.  People’s work was judged by the outcomes they achieved and it was commonly carried out in or near home (the cottage industries) and often for more than one employer.  Most people were agile workers (although they didn’t use that term).  Industrialisation brought in set hours and commuting, but it is time we questioned whether this is still a sensible way to manage our working lives.

Commuting uses up time, is bad for the environment, causes huge house price fluctuations, fails to recognise our personal differences, destroys our sense of community, excludes skilled people from the workforce (such as the disabled) and makes child and elder care impossible (and this isn’t even an exhaustive list!).   Of course, for some people and for some businesses there are perfectly sound arguments for having such a structured approach to work, but you should at least be questioning it, because your competitors are.

Many of the old arguments for offices and set hours are no longer relevant.  Technology means that many jobs can now be carried out remotely.  No-one is full time anymore. We all work in the global economy where time differences mean that none of us can be at our desk all the times that other people need to communicate with us.  Technology also means that outside our set working hours most of us are now working in an agile way (answering e-mails on your mobile phone etc.).

Skills shortages are currently more acute than at any time since the 1970s, and those shortages span unskilled right the way up to highly skilled positions.  Employers have to compete for the people they need or close for lack of staff.  Agile working is attractive to most people because it fits the way they live much better.  Our research found that employers that offer it find it far easier to recruit the people they need and they don’t have to pay them so much.

But agile working isn’t just a perk to attract employees, our research also found that businesses that introduced it enjoyed measurable productivity boosts of around 10%. The office is very distracting, the commute robs people of time and tires them out.  People are far less likely to call in sick when they don’t have to commute to an office and sit with others.

Onyx introduced agile working last year. I didn’t think the concept was that revolutionary; I first worked from home in the 1990s on a dial-up connection that often took hours to download one document, but I’m still surprised by the questions and the suspicion around it.

We do get together a couple of times a week to exchange ideas and gossip, but that is enjoyable rather than a drag. Everyone is judged only on outcomes, if they achieve those at 2am and our clients are properly supported, I really don’t care!  Instead of skiving, as so many managers assume will happen, I find myself forcing people to stop work as they want to finish one more job after a long day.  No-one ever goes on sick leave, sometimes I will speak to a member of the team, realise they’re ill and tell them to stop working and rest and recuperate (I feel more like a nagging mother at such times), but usually they argue back that they can carry on in bed with their laptop.

Of course, there are downsides, it is not as easy to train younger members of the team, who benefit from sitting next to someone more experienced.  We also find some people want the buzz of coming into an office.  It is one reason that our days together are deliberately part social.

Committed people can be tempted to graze at their work until very late in the day, which means their brains never switch off, which is not good for you.  That is particularly a problem when people are working at different times of the day. The larks can be winding down just as the owls star firing out e-mails (but it also means that as one person tires, or stops working, another can finish that urgent job).

Being judged on outcomes is also quite stressful for some who prefer to clock on and clock off. However, we find that the downsides can be managed and the benefits (in terms of lower overheads, happier staff, ease of recruitment and productivity) far outweigh the challenges.

Agile working isn’t right for everyone, or for all organisations, but it is a question that has to be asked.

The Agile Revolution was written to help you understand it and to ask the right questions.

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Anne Cantelo is Founder of Onyx Media, a business communication consultancy and co-author (with global recruiter BPS World) of the book,  The Agile Revolution – A Guide for Business, with contributions from several experts in the field including Sei Mani.

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