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Can agile working succeed in mid-large sized businesses?

Agile working is a growing trend in both large corporations and startups.

Multinational companies like Microsoft implement ‘activity based working’, where employees can work from any location they choose.

At the other end of the market, start-ups and small businesses in the technology sector, which may not have the capital to pay for office spaces, have long been championing flexible approaches.

However, while these types of companies inherently have an agile approach, or have the funds to invest in large-scale shifts towards it, for the long-established mid-large business sector it presents new challenges.

What does agile working look like?

‘Agile working’ can describe a range of practices, from hot-desking, where employees can change desks daily rather than having an assigned workspace, to remote working and alternative collaboration techniques.

For example, Marketing Bee Chief Executive Sharon Latour mostly manages the company virtually, using desktop sharing facilities.

“We have well-serviced offices but barely use them,” says Latour.

Employees of the marketing advisory business, who are based in Melbourne and Sydney, as well as Bosnia, America, Europe and Mauritius, have similarly flexible working conditions.

“Start time is 9.30am but this isn’t enforced too harshly if they have a personal commitment or worked until late the night before,” Latour explains.

“They can also make the choice to work on holidays if they want, and to work from anywhere in the world.”

What are the benefits?

According to Amanda Rose, Founder and Chief Executive of The Business Woman Media, flexible working strategies can benefit both managers and employees. Practices like remote working, for example, with staff collaborating virtually, whether via e-mail or cloud based networks, can cut down on overheads like office rents. Meanwhile, it can help employees’ sense of autonomy.

“If you attract like minded people then they will thrive on the feeling of freedom and flexibility,” says Rose.

“They will end up living and breathing their role, which will result in them putting in more passion, effort and a better return for the business.”

The practice can further cut the intangible costs associated with staff working in an office every day, says Eve Ash, psychologist and Chief Executive of Seven Dimensions.

“You’ve got people who are happier and commuting less, for a start,” Ash explains.

“So in terms of the staff being able to have that extra hour with their family, that is immediately a fantastic benefit.”

Collaborating remotely

One of the keys to the agile approach is engaging the right talent, regardless of where they are located; however this requires a different style of virtual team bonding.

ROTHELOWMAN, an architecture practice with about 125 staff members, has offices in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The practice uses agile working to allow the three teams to collaborate virtually.

Principal Ben Pomroy explains that the arrangement, which began a year ago when the Sydney office opened, was driven by a need to share resources across the teams.

For example, the practice’s retail expertise is located in Sydney, so a retail project in Melbourne, while lead by the local team, will be designed in collaboration with the Sydney office.

“The key is that there’s always a local person working directly with the client,” he says.

The business uses virtual desktops and design tools to achieve this collaboration.

“We’ll call up another office on the virtual conference screen, talk through the project and mark up each other’s designs. And it just speeds up the project,” says Pomroy.

Working on files of such significant data sizes meant that internet speed was one of the biggest initial issues, he explains. Teams working together effectively across different locations also requires careful management.

“Virtual teams work really well once the people in the team have a personal physical connection,” Pomroy says. “I always try to have the members of the team meet each other physically.”

Flying employees to different offices to meet their co-workers before beginning a project carries a relatively small cost but has great benefits for their working relationships, says Pomro.

Right people for the culture

To successfully implement agile working, having the right employees is essential, says Rose.

“If you hire the wrong people, they can take advantage of the flexibility and this can cost you lots of money,” she explains.

“Have a profile of the type of person that suits this style of workplace, or it will cost you both dearly,” says Rose, adding that managers shouldn’t assume that all staff members have the same preferences.

Ash says she spoke to one entrepreneur with a large virtual international team who has built self-reporting systems into his employees’ working day.

“Every day, they have to answer a whole lot of questions,” she says. “Did they achieve what they set out to today?

“They also spend an hour every day doing virtual training, with video. That’s a way of creating a culture of learning, assessing, and self reporting.”

Challenges of agility

A key challenge of implementing agility in a medium-sized business is that the business owner or chief executive’s long-established style of working can set the tone.

Ash says a boss who needs the structure of a 9-5 work day will see employees work in a similar way, while a leader who works flexibly will better be able to implement change.

However, not every flexible working arrangement results in a better working environment for a company. It can fail to make use of workers who are best suited to interactive work, and employees can also feel isolated when working remotely.

Hot-desking, which is sometimes employed to mix-up stagnant work habits and encourage collaboration across companies, can also introduce problems. Some find the requirement to set up and pack up a desk every day disruptive, and some employees struggle to express their personalities without a stable workspace of their own.

What’s the key to a shift?

No matter on the size of an organisation, clear goals and communication are vital for a shift to successful agile working, says Rose.

“If you have people working off on their own, you really need to be seeing the work at regular intervals and sharing your results.

“You really need to build in those checkpoints, those milestones and reviews.

“The workplace is changing,” she says. “Now, it’s all about outcomes.”

 

This post originally appeared in Business Focus.

Written by: Jessie Richardson

Davidson Institute