'Agility' Versus 'Flexibility' - A New Mindset

Posted in : HR Updates on 21 January 2015
Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting
Issues covered:

In a year which will bring some serious change with regards to flexible working and family leave rights in GB and Northern Ireland, we invite readers to consider the work of the Agile Futures Forum (AFF), an organisation brought together to study the benefits ‘agile’ working concepts can bring to SMEs and larger organisations across all sectors.

Consider for a minute the current mind-set of the leadership within your own organisation with regard to the upcoming changes to family leave and flexible working rights. 

Is flexibility viewed as a nuisance to business that is in predominantly beneficial to the employee only? 

Is the corporate culture one of minimising opportunity for flexibility, rather than embracing it? 

Our experience across all sectors of NI suggests that a great many employers are struggling with flexibility as a concept and see the new shake up of legislation  via the Work and Family’s (Northern Ireland) Act 2015, which will apply from April 2015, as a potential nightmare in terms of managing resources and sustaining efficiency and productivity.  According to the CBI’s 2011 Employment Trends Survey of businesses, around a third of UK companies were reluctant to extend the right to request flexible working arrangements to all employees: 32% of companies surveyed suggested that doing so would have a negative impact on productivity, while 38% said it would increase labour costs.

We suggest that considering the work of the AFF in the run up to April 2015 may be a positive approach to using such legislative changes to your advantage and assist you in the planning of some cultural and strategic changes which may result in potentially unexpected advantages. 

Just as a reminder, the new Act will bring some of the following changes:

Shared parental leave – much greater flexibility rights on sharing up to 52 weeks leave between biological or adoptive parents.  Additional Paternity Leave (which is more limited) will no longer apply.

  • Statutory shared parental pay
  • Changes to adoption leave and pay rights – effectively equalising pay and allowing greater flexibility on leave.
  • Time off work to accompany to ante-natal appointments
  • Extended statutory rights to requestflexible working - removal of the requirement to be a carer.

These changes reflect the societal changes we have seen and experienced in the ‘noughties’.  Times are changing rapidly.  Despite the view of a few ‘die-hards’, recreational, family and work life is transformed.  If you don’t believe it, consider the research. A recent survey by the Department of Business Innovation and Skill found that 55% of respondents felt that the main responsibility for looking after children should be shared equally, a further 20% thought that each set of parents should have the right to choose.  If traditional retirement practice has been about a sudden stop to working life, this attitude also appears shifted. Only 17% of the 2,000 retired and yet-to-retire over 50s recently surveyed by YouGov said that working full time and then stopping work altogether would be the best way to retire.

What is ‘Agility’ and who are the AFF?

The Agile Future Forum (AFF) is a business to-business initiative consisting of 22 founder members, with recent members including corporate giants like IBM. Between members, they employ over half a million people across the UK.

The Forum was founded on the idea that new, more ‘agile’ models of work, will be required as a key focus of the modern competitive company. All AFF founder organisations believe that being more agile has increased their ability to compete in a global market and is currently generating significant and tangible economic benefits for their businesses.

David Stokes, IBMs Country General Manager, UK and Ireland says:

"The UK marketplace is experiencing unprecedented rates of change and business must continually transform to successfully compete. This means transforming not just products and services but business processes and even entire business models; central to this is a workforce which can evolve and adapt to the needs of the market. Flexibility is a business imperative for IBM, helping employees manage their lives and meet their career aspirations whilst contributing their energy and talent to our business and our clients."

The objective of the AFF is to:

  • Change UK cultural mind-set: from flexibility to agility
  • Support the increase of agile working practices across the UK
  • Position the UK as one of the most agile countries in the world

What do they call Agility?

Agility is defined as the ability to establish an optimal workforce to support an organisation’s objectives.  This means embracing all forms of working practice to suit the needs of the employee and the organisation to retain talent, maximise experience and capability and flex resources. The AFF define agile working practices along four dimensions:

  • Time: when do they work? (e.g. part-time working; staged retirement)
  • Location: where do they work? (e.g. people working across multiple sites)
  • Role: what do they do? (e.g. multi-skilling)
  • Source: who is employed? (e.g. using contractors or temps).

Flexible working has traditionally been defined somewhat narrowly: usually as a benefit for employees and a cost to employers. The AFF believe that agile practices can be configured to generate value for both the employer and the employee.

Significant value is reported by the AFF  research and case study, a selection is summarises below. They report that agile working practices currently generate value equivalent to 3-13% of workforce costs;

  •  A Tesco superstore currently uses part-time working and multi-skilling practices to meet customer demand  more effectively, thereby generating value equivalent to about 13% of total workforce costs
  • A head office function of Lloyds Banking Group currently generates value equivalent to 7% of total workforce costs through using freelancers to meet seasonal demand and locating staff across multiple sites to lower premise costs
  • A Ford Motor Company Ltd manufacturing plant saves the equivalent of about 3% of total plant costs by using outsourcing, flexible absence cover and alternative maintenance shifts to achieve cover in line with plant needs
  • Eversheds, the legal firm, allowed employees the freedom to choose their own working model, and saw 28% of staff reporting increased productivity and 14% of staff seeing an increase in chargeable hours.
  • A head office function of Lloyds Banking Group identified further opportunity to reduce premises costs by about 23% through multi-site practices.

How could organisations in NI take this on board?

The first step is to consider a few key questions and begin to influence a more open mind to the potential benefits;

Questions for the senior team:

  • Is there a part or department within your organisation which could serve clients / service users better by having a more agile workforce?
  • Are there areas where resource constraints are holding back performance?
  • Are there agile practices you have been considering but have not been able to build a business case for?
  • Do you have a coherent, co-ordinated portfolio of agile working practices? Are you sure of the business value of your current agile working practices?
  • Are business leaders involved in shaping agile working  practices?
  • Are there areas where lack of agile working means you are losing talent?

The most significant barriers to agile working tend to be issues of culture or mindset,  as well as systems or processes that are not yet configured to manage a more agile workforce.  Some key considerations to moving towards agility include:

  1. Prepare your leadership first. As discussed earlier the mind-set of management is one of the main barriers to embracing an ‘agile’ mind-set versus a narrow and limited view of ‘having to’ incorporate flexible work practice.  Create a business case based on the compelling argument that legislative changes requiring greater flexibility can be a win-win situation if approached and handled well.
  2. Create the opportunity for creative thinking about current working practice. Operational managers, employee representatives and HR leaders can work together to look at what might work well for your circumstances and business needs.
  3. Begin with a clear definition and view of the “ideal workforce” and how workforce agility contributes to value. Understand what employee’s value and engage with them to develop agile practices.

In many cases, gaining the full benefits of a more agile workforce will require a larger change . Being more ambitious can create bigger benefits – for example,  some organisations have applied home working across a whole company, freeing enough desks to enable relocation to a smaller premises. Another implemented  a portfolio of outsourcing, temps and overtime effectively balancing cost and risk by flexibly providing more cost-effective labour, creating scope for additional overtime from the core workforce to cover high-skill, short-term needs.

We ask you to consider, in modern VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environmental conditions, how can we expect to survive without pro-actively building in agility?

This article is correct at 14/10/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Angela Schettino
Think People Consulting

The main content of this article was provided by Angela Schettino. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 0450 or email Angela.Schettino@thinkpeople.co.uk

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