As minds focus on the immediate need to do more with much less, “ slash and burn” may seem like the only option for organisations implementing drastic budget cuts. Both private and public sector are looking at ways to improve their performance with less resource. The scale and timing of required reductions certainly demands a more drastic response over and above the normal temporary fixes and limited tinkering around efficiency savings or departmental reorganisations.

A recent Deloitte survey confirms “business confidence has been hit by the UK’s return to recession, finance directors now see an almost one-in-two chance of the recession continuing to the end of 2012 or for the economy to hit a ‘triple dip’ recession”. At the same time Councils are looking at grant cuts of 26% in the period to 2014.

While slashing  may achieve the short term cost reduction goal  it may also create damage to the ability of the organisation to operate effectively – reducing standards, staff morale, productivity and corporate confidence. Following the thoughts of John McCready, Head of the Government Property Unit, “it is important we build strategies that deal with both the immediate priority of tackling the deficit, whilst safeguarding the interests of future generations.” So to meet the new stringency challenges what is needed is a plan that is both sustainable and transformational, a change from traditional to new different and agile, but at the same time produces early wins.

Many organisations are having to continue making difficult decisions on service and resources in balancing their short and long term budgets – cost bases are inflexible, revenue is reducing, markets have diminished, service requirements are changing while price inflation fluctuates. In essence there is unrelenting pressure to do more with less, not as a “one off” but on an ongoing basis. To cope with this there is clearly an underlying  and urgent need to be more responsive to rapidly changing situations. Therefore organisations must become agile and adopt a new Agile Agenda.

People are an organisations biggest liability but conversely they are also their greatest asset. Employers are wrestling with the need for agility in the workforce – the need for reductions, outsourcing and doing things differently while trying to retain or attract talent to maintain services and  improve productivity, innovation and business value.  Simultaneously employees are fearful for the present and the future – certainty of employment, disposable income, and lifestyle in general. In this situation both the organisation and its people are now much more receptive to culture change, innovation and rapid implementation of agile working.

Property is the second biggest liability on the balance sheet and while it is clearly a business asset which does give support and value to the organisation, in the current economic climate some property can equally be seen as an increasingly underutilised, inflexible carbon inefficient liability that is a drag on rapidly changing organisational needs and business effectiveness. While the property market may not currently be conducive to major disposal activity, there are opportunities which can be found if organisations re-assess and re-focus on creating agile property strategies.

In such a climate has there ever been a better time to introduce agile working ?  A recent survey of more than 250 facilities managers, conducted by Leesman research for the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM), suggests the time is right. It revealed that “61% of organisations are actively encouraging remote and flexible working for all staff….and increasing numbers of employers are looking to displace their teams away from expensive corporate environments”.

It would be nice if  you could get “agile working in a box”, but every organisation is different and at different levels of capability. Therefore while the agile journey may have similar ingredients the path is likely to be individual for each organisation . However what is clear is that if managed well, introducing agile working can significantly cut  fixed and variable costs, reduce environmental impact, improve productivity, resilience and customer focus as well as creating a more satisfied workforce with a better work life balance.

The holistic benefits are real and significant for those with the leadership vision and capability to progress transformation across the organisation, but for many agile working has until recently remained no more than a “cottage industry” focussed on studies, small scale pilots and projects with long gestation periods. Too often management inertia, fear of disturbing the cultural status quo and focus on single issues or other political priorities often stalled any serious introduction.

The drivers for change are now clearly in place and agile working is a major element in addressing the ongoing “more with less” dilemma. Indeed the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum report “Leaner and Greener: Delivering Effective Estate Management” confirms that  by following best practice examples of low cost,  agile working practices, UK Local Government could reduce the space it occupies by 20-30 per cent, with the potential to deliver savings in running costs of up to £7 billion a year.

These opportunities are no different but perhaps more urgently needed for survival in the private sector. So in the current changing economic climate a rapid move to deployment of agile working is both irresistible and necessary. What is delaying your organisation ?

Paul Allsopp, The Agile Organisation

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