Flexible vs agile working

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

“9 to 5 / Yeah, they got you where they want you / There's a better life / And you think about it, don't you?” Dolly Parton sang on her 1980 chart-topping single. Turns out, she was right - there is a better way of life than a 9 to 5, and it’s called ‘flexible working’.

Once seen as an arrangement reserved for a minority of employees, whether a luxury or necessity, flexible working is significantly more mainstream than it was nearly a generation ago. In 1999, only one in ten people (9.5%) in the UK were working flexibly, according to a Labour Force Survey issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). In two decades, that number had increased five-fold, to 54%, as reported by the CIPD Job Quality Index.

In fact, flexible working is an option openly discussed in job interviews and listed in employment offers, as companies see it as a way to entice new talent. While salary is still seen as a determining factor of accepting an offer, the young workforce entering the employment market is conscious of their work-life balance and undeniably see flexible working as a perk. 

Let’s face it: if approached with two very similar offers, one will probably choose the job which will let you work from bed. Or the kitchen table, at least.

What is flexible working?

Flexible and agile are often talked about terms today. But, 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.

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."

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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 has to 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.

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 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.

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.

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 decreases 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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