Thursday, 4 July 2019

Workstyle #1: Am I an agile or flexible worker and does it matter?

I am working with a client at the moment who is moving to a new building and asked me to review their flexible working policies. Their existing policies are a direct response to the law regarding the right to request to work flexibly, first introduced in the Employment Act 2002 for those with dependents, and extended to all employees by the Flexible Working Regulations 2014. The organisation is implementing desk-sharing in their new office and already supports home-working. So, I was a little surprised that their flexible working policies made no reference to 'agile working', 'smart working' or 'activity-based working' – I was even more surprised that they were not familiar with such terms!


But, let’s face it, the terminology around 'new ways of working' (a phrase still used today despite being introduced nearly 30 years agao) is confusing and ambiguous. The cynical might even say such workplace strategies are all the same, but the name is just changed occasionally to keep it in vogue. However, there are some (very) subtle differences:

  • Flexible working – defined by the Government as “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.” Despite referencing working from home, the emphasis is definitely on working hours and patterns including job-sharing, part-time, compressed hours, flexitime etc.
  • New Ways of Working (NWoW) – Reportedly, a term coined by DEGW in the 1990s referring to aligning work space to work activities. Apparently, NWoW challenged the assumption that people only work at a desk whereas work is actually carried out across a number of spaces over the course of a day. NWoW looks to understand work patterns and match the space provided to those activities, so very much grounded in workspace solutions.
  • Activity Based Working (ABW) – According to Wikipedia, “a transformational business strategy that provides people with a choice of settings for a variety of workplace activities. Besides the offices with a fixed setting (everyone has their own desk), ABW-offices gives the personnel an opportunity to choose a place in the office where it is most suitable for them to complete their work tasks. Spaces are designed to create opportunities for a variety of workplace activities from intense and focused work to impromptu and informal meetings or more formal meetings.” This appears to be a newer version of New Ways of Working and the term seems more popular in mainland Europe. It is particularly interesting that the Wikipedia definition highlights “everyone has their own desk” but ABW strategies often include desk-sharing.
  • Agile Working – Paul Allsopp of the Agile Organisation suggests it is “A way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose – with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints – to optimise their performance and deliver ‘best in class’ value and customer service. It uses communications and information technology to enable people to work in ways which best suit their needs without the traditional limitations of where and when tasks must be performed.” So, there is more emphasis on performance and the enabling technology in the definition and little reference to space, nevertheless the term has been adopted by the workplace industry and often includes desk-sharing (hot-desking) as part of the strategy.
  • Smart Working – The definition adopted by CIPD, the professional body for HR managers, is “An approach to organising work that aims to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness in achieving job outcomes through a combination of flexibility, autonomy and collaboration, in parallel with optimising tools and working environments for employees.” In contrast to the other strategies, smart working appears to specifically connect performance to work processes and workspace.

The above phrases are so ambiguous that an organisation usually defines what Agile Working etc actually means to them, their work processes, their use of space and technology. For example, in the past there has been: BP’s Bluechalk, BT’s Workstyle 2000, HSBC’s OpenWork and IBM’s e-space.

Despite being adopted by the workplace industry as workplace strategies, the above do not explicitly highlight desk-sharing or remote-working as core elements; that focus is an adaptation introduced by the workplace industry. And perhaps one that comes with more focus on space saving and cost-cutting than the original intention of improving performance. That may be why workstyle polcies created by HR make no reference to the workplace strategies described above.

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