Flexible and agile working – do you know the difference?

Agile and flexible working policies are becoming more commonplace. But in order to properly apply these principles, you need to understand the differences between the two.

Businesses from all industries are adopting and benefiting from a flexible working policy. This allows their people to get work done where and when they want. Flexible working often improves engagement, happiness and efficiency.  As more businesses implement flexible working policies, these policies are often referred to as an “agile working policy”. But why? What has changed aside from employees working hours and possible locations?

Often, not a lot. The organisation is still the same organisation floating along, not improving, not being proactive to change. Departments still work in silos and any change is slow to happen. Realistically, the new “agile working policy” has just meant fewer people are in the office (especially on a Friday!).

Flexible working

What is flexible working?

Flexible working is the idea of giving the people in the business the choices as to where they work and when they work. Types of work can be broken down into 4 categories (concentration, collaboration, contemplation and communication). A flexible working policy (FWP) allows employees to work in a way which is best suited to the type of work being conducted.

When Ricoh UK implemented an FWP it showed improvements in engagement, employee well-being and work output. An FWP requires good change management, buy-in from the senior leadership team to the team leaders and each and every employee. Flexible working requires trust (across the organisation) that people are working in their own way to achieve their objectives. People will find themselves working from different offices and other locations such as at home. Collaboration and communication must be made available through other means than just face to face meetings. Therefore it needs the right technology hardware and software to succeed.

What is agile working?

Agile working, while it tends to incorporate an FWP is not wholly the same thing. While flexible working allows people to work where and when they want, and agile way of working is embedded in everything the organisation does (and doesn’t) do.

Creating an agile workforce often means a whole shift in the way the organisation operates day-to-day. While agile working (AW) is different from Agile project management, AW takes the principles from the Agile PM manifesto and incorporates them into the everyday running of the business. Agile ceremonies such as stand-ups and retrospectives are encouraged, silos are destroyed and the company works towards a common goal (continually delivering value to the customer).  People are open, honest and welcome feedback. An agile workforce realises changes to products, projects and services will happen, they are prepared for these changes and adapt to them accordingly.

The differences

Aside from the obvious differences, you can deduce yourself, there are some more subtle ones between agile working and an FWP.

1. A FWP does not make the organisation more agile, an agile workforce does

The organisation has just rolled out its new FWP. People are now working from coffee shops, home, libraries and some are still sitting at “their desk” (they’ve been sitting there for the last 20 years). But what else has changed? Is the company more effective at dealing with change? Is the board still demanding more sales in a dying market?

An FWP does not combat these issues, but an agile workforce will. Having AW changes the mind-set of the employees and the organisation. Change is prepared for and accepted, adaption and adoption are quick and innovation is encouraged.

2. Difference by design

An FWP is designed to give the people a better work-life balance, (I certainly don’t want to commute every day). It has also shown to improve employee engagement and well-being, reduces staff sickness, increases productivity and increases talent retention. These are of course also beneficial to the organisation, but an FWP is employee-centric. Creating an AW however is organisation-centric, or should I say, customer-centric. Either way, the benefits of having an AW is based around the organisation’s goals and objectives or how they can achieve them.

3. Flexible working is a habit change, agile working is a mindset change

Implementing a FWP is more of a habit change for the organisation’s people. People now have the option to work from where they feel they will achieve the most, instead of their old routine of going to the office from Monday to Friday 9-5. Projects can still run way over time, over budget and have the scope doubled, but all of this can happen from inside the office and while enjoying a latte at a coffee shop.

Having an agile workforce, however, creates a fluid business in which its people continually deliver value to the customer. Failures happen, but they are accepted and celebrated. They happen often, they happen fast, but they are small failures that create more successful outcomes in the long term.

4. An FWP may lead to less face-to-face meetings, something that agile working encourages

The 6th principle of Agile is “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is a face-to-face conversation.” We often see an FWP countering this as more and more people work from different locations it is not viable for them to have face-to-face conversations with others on a project team or department team. In my experience, ad hoc conversations with others in a project team can lead to those light bulb moments we all need during some of the more tricky projects. (Not to mention people multitasking or writing emails while they’re on the phone).

The era of the flexible workforce is here, for both failing companies and ones on the rise. However, only the ones with a truly agile workforce will succeed in this ever-changing, fast-paced, on-demand world we find ourselves in.

Discover more about Agile and Remote Working, the opportunities, challenges and how to implement an effective strategy.

Read ‘Your Guide to Agile and Remote Working’.

Mike Baddeley

Head of Innovation and Strategy at Ricoh UK

Read all articles by Mike Baddeley