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Flexible vs agile working

Although they have similar meanings, it's important to differentiate between flexible and agile workplaces

Agile and flexible working patterns are not new, but they have been redefined by the pandemic and given greater importance, certainly for employees. 

Before COVID, working from home was often reserved for certain employees as a job perk or, in some cases, as a necessity. Only one in ten (9.5%) of UK workers got to do their jobs from home in 1999, according to a Labour Force Survey, issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). By 2020, a report from the CIPD Job Quality Index stated that that number jumped to 54%. 

With the rollout of the vaccine - and now the booster - offices are welcoming employees back, but remote and flexible working have continued for many. As such, flexible working is now openly discussed in job interviews and listed as a 'perk' in certain job applications. Salary is still the major deal-breaker when it comes to accepting a new job, but there is a growing demand from different demographics that want a better work-life balance. This includes new mothers that want to balance their work around their young families and people that want to have more options for where they live. For many, remote working means no longer needing to live within a commutable distance. 

While some may argue that office/workplace culture is at risk with remote and flexible working, many more will suggest it has offered more productivity and inclusion than ever before.

What is flexible working?

The two work-related buzzwords, flexible and agile, are often confused in modern professional contexts, despite being regularly discussed. Simply put, flexible working is employee-centric. It’s about empowering and trusting an individual to complete their work wherever it is most convenient for them to do so.

Man working in a park

Once reserved for the privileged few, flexible working arrangements have become more popular in recent years, and especially so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Flexible working has introduced a range of benefits for businesses, such as being able to recruit talent without geographical boundaries and allowing parents to effectively juggle work and childcare. It’s a phenomenon that’s reliant on digital transformation, and it's a workplace benefit that job-seekers will be adding to their list of preferences in job searches going forwards, given its success over the past few years.

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The Flexible Working Regulations were introduced in 2014 and brought with them the right for employees to request flexible working arrangements, providing that employee has worked for the company for at least 26 weeks.

The regulations set out different types of flexible working arrangements employees are allowed to request, spanning different hours of work, different places of work and job shares, among other possible arrangements. Businesses are under no obligation to approve these requests, but the regulations ensure they have to be considered.

"Working flexibly helps people to balance their work and home lives and is vital in creating an inclusive economy and diverse workforce. It also gives employers access to a wider pool of talent and enables better matching of applicants and jobs," said former business minister Kelly Tolhurst.

"The government is committed to enhancing the quality of work which is why we have recently set out major workplace reforms to give millions of workers, including flexible workers, new rights and protections - the biggest upgrade in workers' rights in a generation. To build on this upgrade, we will also be considering a duty for employers to consider whether a job can be done flexibly, and to make that clear when advertising a vacancy."

What is agile working?

If flexible working is seen as an employee-centric construct, then agile working focuses more on the business itself. The principles are broad and can still be categorised loosely as flexible, but it takes the idea and disperses throughout an entire business’ operations to foster an efficient and motivated workforce.

Taking an agile approach to work involves harnessing technology and using it strategically in a way that allows employees to work on the same project all at different times and from various locations, as long as the project’s needs are met.

An agile workforce can work from home, from coffee shops, or even the park to complete the tasks necessary to their job on any given day. This approach stems from having the right practices and processes to allow employees to work anywhere.

Agile working means flexibility in the workplace by design, not by individual choice. It means employers shift away from the traditional focus on inputs (having workers turn up to a specific location and work during a specified time) and towards an output-based approach (focus on task and project completion).

Agile vs flexible working

The main difference between agile working and other forms of flexible working is commitment. While flexible working can be easily implemented using today's technology, commitment to agile working is required from management and staff.

Flexible working tends to be employee-centric. It's believed to improve work/life balance and enhance employee happiness, though there are benefits there for productivity, reduced absenteeism, and staff retention.

Agile working practices, however, are designed to benefit both the employee and the company; staff get more freedom to work where and when they want, but the result should be a more performance-focused, responsive and effective organisation, where motivated workers deliver stronger products and better customer service.

Flexible and agile tools

Technologically, flexible and agile working practices use many of the same tools. Hot desking, laptops, convertibles, smartphones, and mobile devices play into both, while wireless connectivity is essential.

Agile working, however, requires a wider change of IT strategy, bringing in services like unified communications, team and collaboration platforms, cloud-based data and business intelligence (BI) services and VPN tech to ensure that every employee has what they need to do their job wherever or whenever they're working. While the flexible office can support agile working, agile working takes things further. It's even more crucial to provide a range of workspaces appropriate for different purposes and to give workers the space they need to operate in different configurations as part of different teams.

IT teams should bear in mind that remote and agile working needs don’t only come down to laptops and broadband, but also their security. Working from home or a café blurs the line between private and work devices, even if it's company provisioned. It also brings a whole new set of challenges, whether it’s social engineering or cyber attacks. This is why IT departments need to be mindful of what kind of devices are being used by employees, as well as what kind of software is being installed.

Nobody likes restrictive policies – in fact, this is why remote and agile working models exist in the first place. However, having some sort of security guideline in place may be the deciding factor in whether a company falls victim to a data breach, with potential legal and financial consequences. In fact, the rapid shift to remote working has been cited as being one of the main causes behind the rise in data breach costs, with incidents costing on average $4.96 million (£3.57 million) when remote working was a factor versus $3.89 million (£2.8 million) otherwise.

When it comes to mastering endpoint security, a simple antivirus software is far from enough. Businesses should know their weaknesses and consider implementing such vital security tools as firewalls, data encryption, and segregation, as well as a dedicated antimalware, a separate access control or containerisation system, and even a level of artificial intelligence or machine learning which will help detect divergence in normal behaviour.

Implementing an agile working pattern

The balance between what the business needs and what the employee needs is never straightforward, however agile working can produce numerous benefits it implemented carefully.

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In many organisations, the cultural mindset is the key obstacle to agile working. It isn't enough to have the best technology and build new workstations. It is important that businesses engage with the labour force as well as build up a rapport of accountability and trust.

The shift will also question the command-and-control leadership and culture, particularly in senior and middle management. Execution has to be across the whole business. Departments heads, such as those from IT, human resources, finance and property must push agile working collectively.

There also must be a solid argument for having agile working in a business; key objectives must be defined, and agile working must show how it can help in reaching these targets. The UK government has an agile working code of practice, PAS 3000, created by the British Standards Institute, that can be used as a resource for getting started on the way to agile working.

Going agile isn't for the timorous, but the results can be wide-ranging. BT, for example, has transferred 80% of its workforce to agile practices and seen some workers show a 30% surge in productivity and enhanced staff health and contentment. Stress-related illness has decreased by 35%, the percentage of sick days taken has dropped and total staff retention has increased.

That's good news for its workers and good news for the business.

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