What do businesses need to put in place to support a more permanent agile working model?

04 March 2021

Agile working is something we’ve all been debating for years. However, the current pandemic has catapulted it back to the top of the agenda having forced almost all of us to work from home.

At the turn of 2020 the thought of having entire teams working from home would probably have been unceremoniously dismissed but needs must and, thanks to a heady mix of necessity, flexibility and technology, the switch has largely been successful. 

Moreover, a number of recent studies show the majority of us want to continue to work from home – or at least on a more agile basis – once restrictions are lifted. These studies appear to be supported by a number of major employers. Within a month of lockdown the CEOs of Morgan Stanley, Mondelez, Nationwide and Barclays spoke openly about their desire to see a permanent shift and, more tellingly, their plans to reduce their office space accordingly.

And it’s hard to argue against the theory. There are obvious benefits for both employers and employees.  

For the employee it takes out the grind of the daily commute (something that will also benefit the environment massively – in New York carbon emissions reduced by 50% in the first 2 weeks of the pandemic while in China they fell by 25% during the first 4 weeks) which will save us time, stress and money. 

Away from the physical commute, it is also felt working from home will improve our mental health. A staggering 15.4 million working days are lost each year due to work-related stress and it is widely felt that agile working arrangements will have a significant positive effect on both wellbeing and productivity as workers are generally happier at home.

For the employer being seen as a more forward thinking and flexible organisation should have a positive effect on recruitment. It makes you more attractive to talent that either lives farther afield or needs a little more freedom to meet extra-curricular demands.

And one cannot fail to consider the financial aspect. If more staff are working from home, you will not need as many square feet. This means you can make immediate savings on floor space, furnishing and the cost of the other ‘at work’ perks you offer.

However, if all of that has convinced you to pursue a more permanent move towards agile working, there are a number of factors to consider. It’s not a case of simply agreeing it’s the right thing to do; you need to make sure you comply with all of the relevant health and safety requirements, so your plans don’t impact on your staff’s wellbeing or productivity.

Here are the 3 key factors you will need to assess and continue to monitor:

1. Giving your staff the right tools

The biggest challenge for any organisation working remotely is connectivity. People need stable and unhampered access to the files and systems they use and to the colleagues and clients they work with. 

The good news is we have had what marketers would call a ‘forced free trial’ of working from home. This means the tools we need are already in place and have been tested rigorously under exam conditions. What organisations need to do now is invite feedback from all users to identify where improvements can be made to reinforce an agile working model going forward.

It’s also important to remember that all of the tools we use in our home office have to be useable as well as reliable. One of the biggest threats to productivity are the physical niggles sub-standard equipment or furniture can cause. If someone is going to commit to working from home on a permanent basis, they need to have a proper workstation.

Many of the tech giants have already bought their staff the right desks, chairs, screen risers and screens. This may seem like an unwanted outlay but if you think about the short-term savings you could make by downsizing your office space, it could be a cost you are able to cover. Alternatively, if its practical, you could allow your staff to take home what they need from the office.

It is also advisable to look at the extended range of kit your staff uses. Some people will use mobile devices as well as – or even instead of – what is on their desktop. If that is the case, you need to make sure they are using them in the right way and for the right reasons.

If people are likely to hold their devices for long periods, you need to consider their size and weight or maybe models with larger screens. If they need to answer messages or interact onscreen, you need to consider providing portable keyboards. And to protect neck and shoulder muscles, you should consider providing a riser that will lift the screen into the users’ natural eye line.

While it may sound counterintuitive, you may also want to restrict the use of these devices if they have been provided by the company. While we are working from home its easy to get into the habit of using them excessively out of hours. If that becomes an issue, you can look at setting an expected use policy or even put automated controls in place.

2. Measuring progress

With regards to measuring progress and productivity, very little will change from working in an office. 

Not only will you know what each member of staff needs to accomplish and by when but depending on the role you will have set Key Performance Indicators and Key Financial Indicators to monitor. You can also use comparative data summarising performance levels across different periods. If performance dips below the required levels, you need to tackle issues 1on1 and agree the appropriate actions to get that member of staff back on track.

What may be new is the need to also monitor mental and physical wellbeing.   

 

Agile working can lead to a feeling of isolation given the lack of contact. Make sure your managers know that they are responsible for keeping in touch with their team members. They need to ensure all communications involve all of the relevant parties, so everyone is kept completely up to date. These emails need to be supplemented by a regular programme of phone calls and video calls to maintain continual contact between managers and colleagues.

As well as considering your staff’s mental wellbeing, you also need to consider their physical requirements. 

People need to move around during the working day and when you are working from home, it’s easy just to sit at your desk. We could scare you with the stats (12.5m people in England fail to achieve 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, inactivity costs the NHS £8.2bn each year, if you spend one more hour each day sitting at a desk it could take 3 years off your life) but instead let’s look at what you should be recommending making sure an overly sedentary working life doesn’t take its toll:

  • Encourage standing meetings.
  • Encourage walking and talking when on the phone.
  • Make sit/stand desks available.
  • Make regular breaks mandatory and insist a half hour walk is built into the working day.

3. Additional training

Agile working does not suit everyone, especially those who struggle with time management or self-motivation. You will need to provide training on the practical aspects of working from home at the earliest opportunity. Then make sure the materials available to everyone involved so they have an accessible reminder. 

Similarly, you will also need to provide training on the IT and systems your people will be using. Much of this work will have already been done at the start of lockdown (and, better still, almost all of the glitches will have been ironed out since then). But as things become more permanent, you should run a ‘refresher’ course and regular updates as your systems are adapted and improved.

If agile working is going to be a success the training area, we’d suggest you prioritise is management.

Managing a team remotely may start with the same objectives but the approach required to achieve those objectives is likely to be very different. Managers need to work out how to keep in constant (and meaningful) contact with their staff. This is as much for support and motivation as it is for progress reports. It will involve a mix of phone, video and email not to mention a very different communications style given the ‘virtual’ nature of the relationship.

Aside from the practicalities, there will also be new issues to tackle. Previous interactions were probably focussed on performance, but now there may also be a need to discuss more delicate personal concerns. This will require new skills and a higher level of emotional intelligence.

The final area of training affects both team members and managers. You need to make sure both groups are aware of the risks associated with working remotely and, just as importantly, how to manage those risks. 

This course should tell your staff how to use the equipment you have provided safely. As well as revisiting how to set up an ergonomic workstation this could include:

  • Safe typing techniques
  • How to hold mobile devices so their use does not cause undue stress on arms, shoulders and eyes.
  • How to incorporate helpful add-ons like dictation apps, voice memos and styluses
  • Stylistic options, e.g., keeping internal responses short or making calls instead of emailing.

Much of this may sound like common sense but not only will addressing these factors keep you on the right side of the Health & Safety Executive, but it will also reduce the potential wear and tear on your employees. This in turn will help you maintain morale, motivation, and productivity as you make the transition into a long-term agile working model.

If you are interested in finding out more about how agile working can add value to your business, please call us today. 

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