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How to adopt remote and agile working in the long term

Justin Rix Justin Rix

The current circumstances have made "agile working" and flexible hours the norm. Justin Rix and Katie Nightingale explain how you can ensure this new way of working is effective for your organisation.

The announcements and subsequent guidance issued by the government last week have left many employers in a difficult position; ultimately placing the responsibility on the employer to decide when and how to safely re-integrate employees back into the physical workplace. For those with operations throughout the UK, the devolved administrations’ approach has added an additional layer of complexity to the immediate decisions to be made.

However, the experience for many during the last 8-10 weeks has seen organisations rapidly adopt agile working. For many employers it is  not just a question of considering the immediate challenges in bringing their people back to work but also which working practices to maintain as they navigate the ‘new normal’, supporting those roles that can be performed remotely to continue to do so in some capacity in the long term. It is probably fair to say that for a large number of people the workplace they left will not be the one they come back to.

What do we mean by "agile working"?

Importantly, what this doesn’t mean is just working from home. Agile working refers to where an organisation provides its people with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints with the choice of where, when and how they work to optimise their performance and output.

Done well, having a more-agile workforce can generate significant benefits for an organisation, for example, in terms of engagement, retention and overhead efficiencies. Clearly there are some roles within an organisation that require people to be physically present in their workplace and others where people have always had to work remotely, also it is likely that many people will not be able or want to work completely remotely.  

This can offer tremendous benefits to employee satisfaction and also productivity, but you have to ensure that this new way of working is effective for all your employees. We recommend a three-stage approach to adopting agile working:

1 Look at how things are now

As many employers had to react to a more remote way of working very quickly, there was very little time to assess the capability to do so. Before making significant changes, consider how ready you are to move to a more-agile way of working.

People and Productivity

  • Are your people prepared for and do they actually desire agile working?
  • Can you provide psychological safety for your workforce?
  • Does your Employee Value Proposition compliment agile working and changes in employee expectations?
  • What changes do you need to make to your talent and skills development programmes?
  • How will agile working affect all stakeholders, including customers and suppliers?
  •  How do you make sure that your people remain focussed on the things which are important?
  • How do you make sure that this works for the business?

Processes

  • Do your working practices and policies enable agile working?
  • What practices should you start, stop or continue?
  • Do you need to review the way you track productivity?

Technology

  • Do you have the right infrastructure to cope with remote working at varying times of the day?
  • Can you provide the right tools for your workforce to perform their roles and do they know how to use them?

Property

  • What immediate steps do you need to take to make the workplace ready for your people to return to?
  • Does your property portfolio provide sufficient flexible space for your workforce?
  • What facilities will your workforce require?
  • Where would you ideally locate any physical premises if a large proportion of the workforce were to adopt agile working?
  • Going forward, what is the best use of your property and how does this impact your property strategy? 

Is there a choice?

As businesses see the option to return to the office on the horizon, it's tempting to simply return to the old way of working. But consider what the impact will be if you don’t sustain agile working options:

  • Loss of existing and potential talent to competitors,
  • Loss of business as you fail to keep up with changing consumer demands,
  • Loss of revenue due to a high-cost operating model during an economic downturn

The current situation does provide an opportunity for change but before you make any significant decisions about new working practices, ensure you consult with your workforce about agile working and consider their response alongside the business impact.

2 Plan for a sustained agile working culture

When planning for a cultural shift such as this, careful consideration should be given  to the following:

People

  • Do your people have the right skills to work remotely?
  • What do your people need and want now, both in their work and personal life?
  • Do line managers have the capacity and skills to manage an agile working team?

Processes

  • Do changes need to be made to the operating model in order to function successfully and efficiently?
  • Have needs changed with regards to practices and policies, and what is the timeline for implementation of these?

Technology

  • What technology and training needs to be in place to allow people to do their jobs effectively?
  • What additional steps need to be taken on data security?

Property

  • What is the minimum space that is required, what will it be used for and how will this be managed and where does it need to be located?

3 Implement the physical and psychological changes

Change management is fundamental to successful implementation and requires a clear communication and engagement plan to ensure both the physical and psychological changes are supported. When implementing these changes, you should consider:

People

  • What shift patterns may have to be considered?
  • Do the needs of carers of dependants need to be catered to?
  • Is training and support available for leaders managing remotely?
  • What support do people need if working remotely to ensure their wellbeing and continued productivity?

Processes

  • Where do people and systems interact?
  • Are there responsibilities that will now lie with different stakeholders?
  • Do you have the systems to cope with new processes?

Technology

  • How will technology be rolled out across the organisation? 
  • What training is required?
  • What security measures need to be in place to keep data safe?

Property

  • What practices need to be put in place or modifications made to ensure the safety (actual and perceived) of the workforce, and to remain compliant with government guidelines?
  • How does the organisation ensure that the risks are appropriately managed?

Opportunities

We have listened to many organisations across different sectors and have summarised some of the opportunities and the potential challenges that may be presented by the shift towards agile working.

  • Feedback from many employees is that agile working improves work-life balance and saves time and costs on travel
  • If the new normal is to reduce the number of days physically in an office, this could result in   significant efficiencies  on real-estate and overhead spend
  • Without geographic restrictions and where technology allows more home working, opportunities will open up to recruit a more diverse workforce
  • Improvements in sustainability for businesses include reduction in carbon footprint, waste disposal and energy consumption

Challenges

Culture

Maintaining, building and influencing culture when not face to face; trust and acceptance of agile working are critical.

Role of line manager

Managing more agile teams will require a fresh approach to managing the performance and development of a team.

Workflow management

New systems will need to be put in place to ensure overall visibility, tracking and reward of workflow and outputs, and with that, a changed mindset of KPIs, which may differ across teams.

Physical and mental wellbeing of employees

This may be affected by work creep, musculo-skeletal problems, lack of separation, loneliness and isolation.

Development

What new skills are required and how do we replicate the learning opportunities that come from teams working physically together?

Virtual onboarding

Successful virtual onboarding requires both the technological capability and also the right level of human interaction.

Technology

Investment in improved technology required to support continued agile working.

Property

Maintaining the right level and type of working space to cater for business needs.

The new normal

Overall, the COVID-19 lockdown has proven that agile and remote working is feasible for most employees and numerous surveys have shown that the majority prefer this way of working. What's left is for businesses to adapt to this new normal, as the genie is truly out of the bottle and it's unlikely that resisting agile working will be acceptable going forward. 

For help with implementing agile working for your business, contact Justin Rix.

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