Unpredictable change is rapidly becoming the defining characteristic of the current decade. Organisations that simply cut costs or make minor adjustments to static business models may well be able to realise short-term gains to sustain and survive. But in the current dynamic world the only certainty is change, where status quo is not an option. The future is a place where only the agile will survive and thrive.

Introducing “flexible working” can if managed well cut an organisations costs, reduce environmental impact, improve productivity, service resilience and customer focus, also provide a better work life balance for its people. But, for many this is now a standard and limited response that provides just enough to satisfy statutory requirements and token change. Indeed is this gesture to agility really setting the foundations for the necessary future organisational step changes required to survive and thrive – if not what comes next and when ?

What is needed is a much more radical response. Agile Working is multi dimensional –  not just limited to doing the same work in the same way at a different time or place. It incorporates time and place flexibility, but also involves doing work differently – it is transformational. In addition, organisations must look beyond current boundaries and develop more innovative and holistic outlooks not limited by the standard and piecemeal approaches employed in the last decade which in general have not been fully developed.

For example some 5000 Virgin Media employees are now free to work remotely with video calls and shared documents from a variety of locations via PCs, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, following the deployment of Cisco Quad, WebEx and Unified Comms products. “The ability of social media to actively engage audiences is proven, and we’re making the most of collaboration software to bring new ways of working to Virgin Media,” said Elisa Nardi VM Chief Transformation & People Officer. “Our people will be able to connect using video, chat and activity feeds from the office, when working from home and on the go. We’re enabling a more flexible and collaborative work environment and will continue to deliver an outstanding experience to our people and, ultimately, a more agile and engaged workforce.”

Increasingly the NHS is looking to mobile technology to improve patient care, particularly through greater use of telehealth for community care and patients to self-monitor their symptoms at home rather than take up valuable bed space in hospitals. At South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust (SWFT) plans are in progress to digitise its paper-based library of medical records and provide staff with mobile devices (including iPads) to access the information from the bedside in hospitals or while in the community visiting patients at home. SWFT is also proposing to use other mobile functions such as online mapping to enable district nurses to plan the best route for their patient rounds.

Duncan Robinson, Associate Director of ICT at SWFT, said these plans will change the way staff work, “whether in an acute or community setting, there is significant duplication of information. Paper can’t be in two places at once. Ultimately, flexible, simultaneous electronic access to the latest patient information will free up clinical time and improve patient care.” This agile working will improve productivity and service capability but also support the Trusts property rationalisation and sustainability objectives.

In the wider public sector, the current silo property approach must be rapidly re-focussed onto the Total Place concept. Rationalising within public bodies is fine and has benefit but not nearly enough. What is needed is a big picture approach across the whole Sector embracing economies of scale, standardisation and common use policies. The current economic state makes change imperative, and people more receptive, but time is now of the essence.

Current Total Place thinking seems to be principally focussed on consolidation and de-duplication of what exists. This has the potential to yield massive property opportunities, but the gains can be considerably improved and reach beyond property costs if there is a simultaneous re-assessment of an organisations agility, ie  underlying business models, workstyles and related requirements.  This should include a concerted drive to enable and install agile working into wider work areas and populations, many of which are currently limited by organisational and individual attitude inertia.

If organisations are to become truly agile then they should be moving to a more virtual existence and their investment should re-balance, focussing on people and technology rather than property. Technology is now providing cost effective, secure and reliable support for mobile and remote working (and learning), enabling secure online capability to create, store and access information, and communicate visually and verbally on a 24/7 basis across all boundaries.

Despite the increasing cost in time and money of business and personal travel – not to mention resilience issues caused by transport disruption – the concept of Home Working, or rather its significant implementation is still something that seems “beyond boundary” for many Organisations. Much of this inertia is about lack of understanding, fear and control brought about by continuing application of outdated management attitude, processes, practices and capabilities which have failed to keep pace with technological capability and service demands.

A recent O2 Homeworking Pilot involved 2,500 staff based at its Slough HQ working away from the office for a day in preparation for anticipated transport disruption during the Olympics. O2 described the pilot an “astonishing success”, a showcase for what could be achieved through well developed flexible working strategies – “given the right preparation and communication, conservative presenteeism-based attitudes to work can be changed, with great benefits for both managers and staff”.

The benefits of working beyond boundaries for the O2 pilot were some 2,000 hours commuting saved with staff instead spending half that time working. Some 90% of staff reported they worked as productively as normal, and 36 % claimed to have been more productive.  While the environmental impact included a 12-tonne reduction in CO² emissions, a 12 per cent decrease in O2 electricity consumption and 53 % drop in water usage.

The OGC “Working Beyond Walls” vision of Workplace 2020  clearly anticipates   “Step-change improvements  …..enabling employees to choose the best place from which to work. Homeworking is commonplace. Mobile working is popular”.  However 2020 is several years away and maybe something more expeditious will now be appropriate, but the key message is that review and improvement must be continuous – it is a journey not a “one-off once only fix”.

Whilst ICT is the key enabler in supporting successful roll out of extensive remote and distributed working, HR teams must provide the framework for a productive agile organisation. A recent Microsoft Survey identified that while 66% of managers believe flexible working increases employee productivity, only 9% of companies have a method to measure this productivity. The survey also revealed businesses are failing to communicate their policies to staff with 60% of business leaders saying flexible working polices and guidelines are available but 70% of workers are unaware of their existence.

HRs role is to embrace and gain impetus for people to work in different ways, times and places by creating the policy framework and installing “output based performance” into the organisation, sweeping away the current reliance on “presentee” systems . Implicit in this change to new ways of working is the move towards a trust based organisation – without trust agile working cannot be truly successful. It will not happen without “Up Skilling”  and engaging the workforce, as well as management coaching and mentoring to embrace a new work culture – the Agile Agenda.

An area of significance often overlooked is the role that can be played by internal property charging. Organisations would be much more receptive to consider remote working if property costs were to be wired into senior and middle manager budgets and targets rather than lost in a central or “wooden dollars” corporate account. Understanding the value of property or space as a cost to products and delivering services at an operating level will bring about more appropriate and cost effective, functional workspace and location decisions that will further drive agile working, IT investment and property rationalisation.

The basic message is that good things can grow out of the current economic crisis. Focus on driving agility into the organisation and related support mechanisms, and this will not only provide further ongoing property benefits, but more importantly produce a healthier more responsive, resilient and sustainable workforce capable of “working beyond boundaries” to meet the demanding current and future challenges.

Paul Allsopp
The Agile Organisation