Shella Snehi, a specialist employment lawyer at Excello Law, argues that agile working is key to work-life balance and business profitability
Agile working has become a new mantra for every employer over the past decade, not least since flexible working, was cemented in legislation such that every employee in the UK now has the statutory right to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment. Requests to work flexibly need to be in writing and employers must have a sound business reason for rejecting them. Moving forward, according to conservative MP Helen Whately, flexible working should be the default position for all employees, rather than it being up to individuals to request it as she laid new plans before Parliament earlier this year.
The Government Flexible Working Taskforce has also expressed its commitment to promoting wider understanding and implementation of inclusive flexible work and working practices. But despite this dramatic shift in working culture, reinforced by a change in the law and Government manifestos, questions remain as to how far and how soon agile working will follow suit.
The death of the traditional office has been much discussed. Maintenance and upkeep costs are certainly significant. Scan the horizons of Britain’s largest cities, however, and you can see many new offices are still being built. In the City of London, for example, several million square feet of commercial office space are currently under construction, with several million more planned over the next five years.
Some explanation comes from a report by Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL), which predicts that flexible working spaces are set to grow by up to 30% annually for the next five years, changing how businesses of every size organise their workforce. Last year, flexible workspace operators took up one-sixth of all new commercial property in London while their footprint grew fastest in Manchester and Birmingham. Firms like WeWork and IWG provide office space, enabling clients to vary the number of desks and how long they need them for. This, in turn, serves as a boost to agile working.
But much of that impact still lies in the future, not the present. For now, company offices are still the norm, not the exception, but companies can still apply an agile working mentality by thinking of their employees’ work in terms of performance and outcome as opposed to hours spent in the office. Technology, of course, is key – the fuel which allows much agile working to happen. When applied to computers, it enables employees to work wherever and whenever they choose.
Productivity is a much wider issue in the British economy as it lags stubbornly behind many of its European neighbours. Some research suggests that flexible workers work more productively than their fixed hours counterparts. A study by HSBC found that the professional services industry is the most likely to offer employees flexibility, with 36% of professional services employees saying it is available to them and that 89% of employees believe flexible working is a key motivator to their workplace productivity levels, more than financial incentives. By allowing employees to work flexibly and applying the “working smart” philosophy that applies to agile working, businesses can both save money and boost employee effectiveness and productivity.
Businesses which deploy agile working structures can be the key to employees being able to work how and when they want and still be able to ensure excellent client service. Every survey suggests that employees like the freedom which it provides. Agile working can lead to lower absenteeism and greater employee loyalty. Innovative working practices, therefore, result in a win-win situation for both businesses and their employees. Companies may otherwise be losing out on talented and valuable employees if they do not provide the flexibility desired. Encouraging and supporting a flexible approach not only support a healthy work-life balance but also contributes to business success and growth.
Of course, tech-enabled agile working is no longer a new phenomenon: millions of workers now use computers and smart devices outside the office as part of their work. But predicting how future technology might enable businesses to improve employee engagement is hard, particularly since the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) is set to change the world of work in a myriad of ways.
How such technology will facilitate evolving working patterns, therefore, remains to be seen, although forecasts suggest that the convergence of AI systems with the agile world is set to have a significant disruptive impact in the next decade. As agile working continues to become more prevalent across both the private and public sectors, it will undoubtedly continue to play an important part in meeting the aim of working better and more efficiently, not longer and allowing for greater work-life balance.
It remains to be seen if the traditional 9-5 model will be declared ‘dead’ as flexible offices and agile working continues to rise. For some, agile working already brings a world of exciting opportunities for working in a way that personally suits and from any location – all that is needed is a laptop and a reliable internet connection.