What is Agile Working?

Agile Work Aspects (by Proteus)

Very often we get asked this question at PROTEUS and although in some ways it can seem simple, the more you look at it the less clear it seems and the implications on workspace technology can be significant. For you see Agile working is more than just ‘Anytime, Any Device, Anywhere’. I like to think of it in the same way i like to think of the primary role of Project Management and the managers; removing obstacles for people to work more efficiently. Now this doesn’t mean that the workday has to be densely packed with no space to breath, it’s more about the output.

As recently as March, the FT.com featured an article on how France’s productivity was a huge 27% greater than in the UK based on GDP per hour. Of course I’ll be the first to admit that every statistic can be manipulated to prove a point but in this case we sit at the bottom of the table just above Japan in terms of productivity out of the World’s 7 most advanced nations! There’s no way to definitively point to a single reason for this as the number of environmental variables affecting this are extensive from culture, to the speed we communicate, to technology infrastructure, the impact of the financial crises on the country and our appetite for risk to name a tiny fraction. But it’s hard to deny the ability of the French to work less hours, take longer lunches (and not at their desk) and still be more effective than us and in this way agile working can help as it’s an approach to work that can help us do more in the time we use and rest and relax more effectively in the time we have off.

As we all know working longer doesn’t always equal to more output but it’s always been hard to measure output and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) other than just financial and even then not all jobs and roles can be shown to directly equate to financial output. In fact one of the hardest tasks that any CIO has (Chief Information Officer not Chief Investment Officer), is to show that IT isn’t just a support function and cost centre but can actually be a driver of income and an innovation centre not just an area to drive down costs. It’s easy to see the direct connection between a sales role and the financial output of a company – more sales per hour = more financial output but what about project management or accounting for instance do better structured finances, more efficient processes, less printing, fully labelled journals give rise to happier accountants, less restrictions, less outsourcing, less waste, more overall profit? It’s hard to create a quantifiable and therefore comparable metric and so often it isn’t done.

On the other hand, I trained in Electronics and Engineering and therefore believe scientific and methodical measurements have their place in helping define how we can work, especially through defining the outputs we want achieved and then looking at how to achieve them rather than starting with the inputs. In fact, this is one of the core values here at PROTEUS (most likely driven through my training in project management and Six Sigma), that we feel so many others fail to remember: Quantify the Outputs > Align the Inputs. This was recently reinforced having attended a BCS event entitled: “Innovation Games and Agile” 2 weeks ago where Tom Gilb (www.gilb.com) was talking on using scientific methods for quantifying management and business outputs and how that had significantly helped the companies that he consulted for.

So what does this all mean? In short it means we need to move away from time and attendance based measures of success. I understand that falling asleep at your desk is considered a good thing in Japan as it demonstrates dedication to the job: you were so tired from working so hard that you fell asleep! interesting therefore that this also coincides with Japan having the lowest GDP per hour on the table of the top 7 most advanced countries.

Instead success needs to be established using different measures; When, Where, Who and How. These take into consideration people, time, location, environment, role, load, technology, communications, process and other factors. Mobile, Remote, Home and Other types of Flexible working are Workstyles and only refer to locations. Activity-based working refers to the type of activity you are doing and revolves more around how you feel at the time; an intimately human factor which is hard to quantify.

In the end, Agile working is hard to pin down as there isn’t a one size fits all but it’s about defining success by quantified outputs rather than inputs but at the same time ignoring the human element is dangerous. Lots of people always laugh when the topic of sleep pods or quiet rooms are discussed and are often not seen as viable areas to spend money on but the HSE found that work-related stress cost companies 10.4m working days in absence 2011/12 with variying financial estimates but that all sit in the Billions of Pounds. But if those companies used their meeting rooms more efficiently (in fact most offices are utilised only around 40% of the time and booked meetings are attended 60% of the time) other rooms could be put to better use making staff more productive and cutting costs.

So Agile Working is about optimising people, process, technology, location, time and communication to reduce the barriers to productivity.

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