Flexible vs agile working

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

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What life was like before the pandemic is gradually slipping from our memory as many of us haven't been in an office environment for well over a year. But agile and flexible work patterns are not new, they've just become the norm.

Working from home was previously reserved for certain employees, either as a perk of the job or a necessity. According to a Labour Force Survey, issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) only one in ten (9.5%) of UK workers got to stay home for their jobs in 1999. That number is jumped up to 54% in 2020, according to a report from the CIPD Job Quality Index

The UK went into lockdown three times last year and remote working was the only option for many. Flexible working, in contrast, is now openly discussed in job interviews and listed as a 'perk' in certain job applications. While salary will still be the major deal breaker for accepting a new job, there is a growing demand from different demographics that want a better work-life balance. This includes new mothers, students, people switching careers, and even those that want more options with where they live.

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?

In 2021, flexible and agile are frequently talked-about terms. However, although they have similar meanings, they're two different things when it comes to working. In simple terms, one is for you to have greater flexibility in terms of work/life balance and the other is to make you work for an organisation in a more agile manner.

Man working in a park

The right to request flexible working was introduced in 2014, under the Flexible Working Regulations. It has helped people exercise greater control over their careers and lives. It sets out different types of flexible working options that an employee can request - if they have worked at the company for at least 26 weeks - and includes different hours of work, home working and job shares, among other things.

"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 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?

Agile working, on the other hand, is all about the business. An agile project is where research, planning, design, development, and testing all happen in parallel. It allows for continuous improvements to be made throughout the process with the new system only going live when it has demonstrated the service works and meets the user's needs.

Agile working uses technology to create a new normal pattern of working where all employees can work at different times, from various locations, provided business needs are met. This should result in benefits such as greater employee productivity, decreased office costs, and a more motivated workforce.

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 may be in an office at a desk with an employee's team, a breakout area, a park, a coffee shop, or at home. This approach stems from having the right practices and processes to allow employees to work anywhere.

With agile working, management must change its focus from inputs (turning up to a specific workplace at a specific time) to a more outcomes-based approach (making sure tasks and projects are completed).

The key differences between agile and 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.

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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. Hotdesking, 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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