Tomorrow I have been asked to make a five minute introductory speech on: "Why is there resistance to agile working? Trends during recession and the issue of productivity”. This is what I intend to say.
I remember the days before the recession. I had been implementing new ways of working, that’s what we called agile working then, for around 12 years. I had become despondent that agile working had been hijacked by the property and FM industry as a more devious means of reducing the cost base. I’ve always maintained that if you simply want to save money on property costs then there are easier ways to do it than go through the heartache and mental strain required to implement agile working - for example cram all your people into a cattle shed in the north.
But finally the message was getting through – agile working is about changing the way you work, it’s about flexibility and choice, working when and where works best for you, it’s about trusting you staff, managing by results not time. Done properly agile working can increase staff satisfaction, loyalty, collaboration, productivity and profitability (as well as save on property costs). There are demonstrable benefits for the individual, the team and the business.
And then the recession hit. Suddenly people were being laid off and the office spaces being vacated - that’s the office space that we had acquired during the upturn and managed to design, fit-out and move in just in time for the first hints of a recession. So there was little point implementing desk sharing, the dreaded so-called hot-desking, in a newly leased office that was sitting half-empty; and then there was the message given by taking away desks from those who had managed to cling onto their jobs, a message akin to “you don’t need your own desk because after-all you will be next out the door”.
We also found that more people were coming back into the office. Either they had fewer clients to see so were less mobile. Or they wanted to remind their bosses who they were and why they were valuable to the company, avoiding the case of "out of sight, out of mind". Utilisation rates may have crept up but the offices were still mostly under-utilised.
I think the smarter companies were the ones that did go through with agile working. For them it was about cost-avoidance, not getting stuck with a load of half-empty property in the future, and it was about tackling the issue of desk sharing at a titme that the staff understood the need to control costs and reduce unused space. These companies consolidated their space and had their empty offices ready and waiting in the wings for that first lease break.
Now I am supposed to say something on productivity, that’s 25 years of ny own research and views in less than a couple of minutes. My latest thinking around productivity and agile working (as a combined topic) is that, like large buzzy open plan environments, it doesn’t suit everyone. We know agile working is not conducive to certain work activities and job roles but I suspect it doesn’t suit all personality types either.Some personality types, like introverts, prefer quiet spaces, they like solitary activity, they like detail, and they even find people a distraction; they probably like home-working but there may also prefer familiarity and planning, so they have more habitual behaviours e.g. they sit in the same place and personalise it. In contrast some personality types, like extroverts, thrive in stimulating environments, they are social animals and would find working alone at home a distraction. Such people are more spontaneous, work at a high level, take risks and probably have no interest in and less ties to specific spaces.
Through good change management we can encourage people to work flexibly, but some of them may be outside their comfort zone and perhaps they are just not as productive as they might be. It is important that first and foremost we create spaces to that enhance performance and support the occupying business. I believe that well designed and managed open plan environments and agile working are good viable solutions (despite what Yahoo might think). We must move away from considering the office simply a cost burden to be taken out of the profitability equation, and recognise that office design can directly facilitate or hinder people and business performance.