One of the great, and largely unnoticed, innovations of the 21st century has been the advent of agile working.
Flexible workplaces and flexible working have been with us for a while, but now these have been replaced by agile workplaces and agile working.
Whereas flexible working was seen as a business “perk,” agile is seen as a “business requirement.”
The rise of global teams, virtual teams and 24X7 teams has contributed to the rise of agile working, and the trends looks set to continue.
And to be clear, this is agile with a lower case “a.”
It is a million miles from software development factories and coding resources, and it arguably affects many more individuals with direct consequence for their work-life balance — and of course for project and program managers everywhere.
(For example, a research paper from Lancaster University illustrates how far this change has affected working lives in the UK.)
The difference between flexible and agile working is stark. The traditional flexible working model was offered as a benefit to the employee, (with little to no perceived benefit for the employer) and had to be agreed to by management. It was seen as a “perk”‘ of the job.
By contrast, agile working focuses on the business need, and being able to fill that need wherever, whenever and on whatever technology is available.
Business has always been outcome-focused, and now agile working allows project and program managers to focus solely on outcomes, without having to worry about “presenteeism” (i.e. employees being present at their desks but with low productivity). An outcome focus also helps reduce unnecessary meetings.
However, organizations should be aware that agile working doesn’t suit everyone. Different personality types adapt to agile work differently. The key concept is for the organization itself to be agile, in terms of providing multiple ways of working for staff, both agile and traditional.
What about in situations where agile is the only choice?
Virtual teams are a model of agile working, perhaps with members of different time zones, different cultures and different countries. It can be difficult to manufacture a “water cooler” moment amongst a virtual team. However, project managers and program managers that are successful show empathy, understanding, adaptability and plan for team moments. The use of quizzes, ice breakers, introductions and interesting facts can all help to build rapport within a team that will never meet face-to-face.
The advance of agile workplaces shouldn’t lead to the demise of the human side of management, nor should it lead to a decline in the ordered and structured requirements of work.
In the final appraisal, agile working practices help the dollar-and-cent bottom line. They increase staff satisfaction (see a UK survey here), increase productivity, aide recruitment and improve retention rates.
What can we as project and program managers do to encourage this?
- Encourage employees to safeguard and plan their non-connected time – leaving them free to focus on outcomes
- Ensure staff members understand and take advantage of the mobile working practices of their organization and of the client
- Become coaches, mentors and enablers for this new way of working. An agile focus is an outcome focus, and an outcome focus means no more micro-managing.
Good luck, and flex that muscle!