Agile in the future world of work

Is it possible that, in future, the people who deliver most value to an organisation will never show up on its organisation chart? Scary thought, but a reality as many organisations move towards an ever more contingent workforce consisting of independent contractors, outsourced service providers, consultants and limited duration contract workers. The age of the gig economy is not a new fad or flavour of the month tool, it’s a reality and becoming more and more entrenched in organisational life each and every year.

The buzz word of the moment is agile. How do organisations respond quickly and appropriately to changes in their external context, bring products to market faster, scale up faster and fail fast, fall forward? Well, having the right digital enablement that puts relevant information at everyone’s fingertips and bring the power of cognitive automation and predictive analytics into each workspace is an essential element. But, bringing to bear the right expertise, intuition, thinking and collaborative skills at the right time and place (at the right cost) is a pre-requisite that no digital system, no matter how intelligent, will replace. Future competitiveness requires a diversity of experience and fresh ideas, coupled with an inclusive culture that melds the deep experience of long serving employees with the unconstrained thinking of outside free-agents.

Accenture in a report, Shaping the Agile Workforce, remind us that investing in an agile workforce which is scalable across the business requires adherence to a number of rules. Rule 1 is that building a fit for purpose workforce  requires establishing innovative thinking and decision making, fuelled by key insights into the business and its competitive space. Rule 2 talks to the issues discussed above – talent is not going to be sourced solely through employment agencies, job boards or by looking internally at organisational structures. New channels such as Upwork and Nomad, who put forward skilled independent ‘free agents’, are one source. Having a database of people sourced from social media and referrals, who can be brought on board at short notice is another. This means that HR needs to think more broadly than a typical workforce plan and tap into a deeper ecosystem than simply potential permanent employees. It is no wonder that many companies now talk of their People Executives who have a broader conceptualisation of the value of attracting talented people than the normal employee recruit, manage, lay off syndrome.

Rule 3 is essential in considering the transition to the workplace of the future. The reality is that employees will be both displaced and enabled by technology. Ensuring that they acquire new skills through corporate supported learning programmes has the benefit of retaining institutional knowledge and providing the skills required for success in tomorrow’s world. This mix provides a unique form of competitive advantage in its own right. Learning alone will not suffice. Bringing to bear the best of change enablement, enabled by insights drawn from neuropsychology, cognitive and behavioural economics is also essential for a successful transition.

Its not only the workforce that is in transition but also workspace. The reality is that enhanced, intelligent systems calls into question the whole future role of managers. With transactional administration and people management systems automated so that outcomes and outputs are measurable and data freely available, the span of control of managers may be increased and the need to be in close proximity decreases. Perhaps now we can free ourselves from the illusion of control held dear by many managers of the past. This means that flexible, remote working is also within the domain of the agile workforce. Online meetings may never quite take the place of sitting face to face, but there is no doubt that much of our face to face time is redundant and could easily be replaced by digitally enabled engagement.

As Mercer confirms in their 2019 Global Talent Trends Survey, ‘Flexible working allows companies to demonstrate a people-centric approach to their operations, an attractive approach for employees.’ If this provides a competitive advantage in attracting the best possible talent, then so be it.

Delivering on the promise of agile also requires creative leadership thinking, an adaption to trends as well as a shift in culture. Once again, culture shapes performance. Adopting and scaling agile practices across an organisation is only possible in an ‘agile-friendly’ culture.  If agile values are out of synch with the prevailing organisational DNA, then they will be rejected in the same way a body rejects any foreign matter.

If this sounds like a lot of hard work, we’d be well off following the advice of the wise Chinese sage who said ‘A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.’