Before we begin, this discussion about agile working is not about the 2001 Agile Manifesto, which does form a part of the foundation for the idea of agile work, but which in this context has been lost. The manifesto was about software development, so it’s an adaption to workplace environments and people management is somewhat confusing, and perhaps this is why for many people it fails.
As businesses find ever more creative ways to make money, the agile working environment is being pushed as the solution to all things concerning employees. The hard sell begins with ‘savings on resources’ and ‘reducing unused office space’ and ends with ‘more productivity’ and ‘flexible working’. Businesses that are implementing the agile work policy are telling their employees to get on board or get out because it is the future of work – but what about the employees? Does this system of insecurity and high activity work for everyone?
Work From Home
The opportunity to work from home has always been an attractive idea. With ever-improving connectivity and systems to facilitate remote working, it seems that making people’s dream to work from home has come true.
However, not all people do well working from home. Many find the need for self-discipline a burden, while others over invest and do not know when to stop or take breaks.
Some people thrive. People who have high levels of self-motivation, who enjoy their privacy and their own company and those whose work requires little collaboration are often happiest when allowed to work from the peace and comfort of an environment that they can control.
So you’ve decided that you have too many unused desks and the best way to cut costs is to cut desks. All the research tells you this is a great idea. There are whole companies dedicated to analysing what type of hot-desk and open-office environment your team really wants.
One can only suppose this concept is taken from the manifesto principle: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
Teamwork is important and having a space to collaborate is vital to most businesses. However, having a space that you can call your own is also important. The solution, according to agile working advocates, is to return to high school. Pigeon holes or lockers for your belongings, clean desks assigned on a timetable in an ever-shifting environment.
While this system clearly works for the social butterflies who are less concerned about the depth of their engagement with work and more concerned with their popularity among peers (again, high school) it does not foster a sense of ownership and consistency.
For those who choose to be immersed in their work, having at the very least, a dedicated space from which to work seems like a minimal ask from your employer, after all, you are there for them. This system of constant flux disguised as a support for the ‘individual’ who needs constant approval from peers, ignores the reality of productivity – the need to focus and have a sense of achievement and belonging within a company structure.
The idea is that your space is designed to offer something for everyone. Private space, collaborative space and quiet space are all laid out by an office design team who have queried your staff about what they most desire from their working environment.
However, all such surveys fail to take into account the differences between people’s work ethic, background, age, gender, education level and even job description. While Joel in accounts might prefer working from a couch, Jason in sales might prefer working from a private office. However, Jason is in sales, not a job that requires a high level of qualification or experience in most industries. His desire for a private office might be based on delusions of grandeur rather than practical application.
Joel might be really bored as an accountant and see working from a couch as a way to mitigate his career stagnation rather than investing in his work and striving for personal excellence. Personal motivations are not considered when agile working firms assess businesses. The goal for such consultants is to make money and convince you of the need to transform your space. While compelling ‘evidence’ might be presented to convince you of the need to transform your office space, the reality from many people working in such open office environments is one of discontent. For some introverts and some people-pleasers, the environment is confronting and can cause great anxiety. For some extroverts and some who are not committed to working, the environment fosters a sense of laziness and passing the buck.
Small businesses have an advantage. Having a small team does allow for greater flexibility. A real Agile environment means listening to the needs of your team and understanding how to meet those needs. While some people might think that their best work is performed from their home environment, their contribution might be lacking, or communication between team members might be strained.
Other people might want to work from an open office but not be productive in such a space as it becomes a space to socialise. Such individuals might benefit from having an office with a closed-door so they can focus.
While we strive in our current working climate to meet the needs of individuals to attract the best talent, the bottom line needs to be addressed. If your team is not working to their optimal level the majority of the time, perhaps the focus on a lack of structure and pandering to fads of serving individual needs first should be reconsidered.
Agility in the workplace should not only be from the employer. Team members need to see the big picture – without the success of your work contribution, you will not have a company to work for. Working is not about the individual, it is about the team. While individual happiness is important and impacts worker performance, without a company to contribute to the work means nothing.
Managing people and their expectations is never easy. Structuring your office to motivate and accommodate need not come at the sacrifice of your business productivity. While agile working might be a way of the future, it has a long road ahead before enough people are self-motivated and disciplined enough to contribute to a team in a meaningful way without structure.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post.
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