A small business guide to agile working

Here Nigel Davies, founder of digital workplace Claromentis, explains what agile working is, how he’s using it in his business, and shares his tips.

You might have heard the term ‘agile working’ bandied about, and you’d be forgiven if you thought it was a synonym for flexible working. It’s not, though that’s often part of it.

Agile businesses react quickly to change, rather than pushing ahead with their strategies regardless. This requires fluidity, creativity, collaboration – because the reaction is a collective one – and a degree of autonomy. Its success is measured by productivity and outputs.

Agile working is particularly popular with millennials, who prefer working as part of a team, love speed, crave responsibility but want to feel safe and supported, and think strict hierarchies belong in the dark ages.

Research by The Agile Future Forum, a not-for-profit alliance of UK business including John Lewis, KPMG, McKinsey & Company and Tesco, found agile working practices saved 3 per cent to 13 per cent of workforce costs, with the opportunity to increase that by up to 7 per cent if these practices were implemented more extensively or innovatively.

Its researched cited the example of legal firm Eversheds, which gave its employees the freedom to choose their own working models. This resulted in 28 per cent of staff reporting increased productivity and a 14 per cent increase in chargeable hours.

We hired in external consultants to make sure we were operating as an agile business, and found this meant a cultural, as much as an operational change. Based on what I’ve learnt, here are some ideas on how you can support agile working in your business.

Trust your team

Agile working is a superb example of the hive mind in action. A collective that shares ideas and knowledge for the greater good of the business, with both unwavering support and honest feedback of the whole team. It’s not only democratic, it’s distinctly socialist. It’s all about trust.

Flexible working is often policy in agile businesses because it hinges on empowering your people to do their best work wherever, whenever and however they choose to do it (seasoned micro-managers can stop reading here).

Create structure

Bestowing autonomy on teams requires boundaries. As oxymoronic as ‘structured agility’ might sound, the two crave each other.

When introducing agile working practices into our business, we found regular short meetings help. These are put in the calendar months in advance, and never change. Each morning, every person in the business tells the group what they are planning to do that day. Every month our coders, customer service managers and salespeople make the case for what to prioritise building or upgrading next, based on what clients are requesting or obvious bugs. And every quarter we hold a strategy meeting where we prioritise and map out our projects. Every item on the to-do list is subject to change, but nothing is left to chance.

Everyone in the company is entitled to work flexibly, but we control communications and workflows through our own digital workplace, so no one is siloed and information is searchable.

Strengthen bonds

To operate as a hive mind, your team has to get on and trust one another. Encourage friendships between colleagues, put on social events, and plan away days that get people out of the office and, crucially, are fun. Team building activities can be far more interesting and unusual than orienteering. Escape Room and Crystal Maze are popular company outings, or try outdoor volunteering – fruit picking, harvesting and planting trees – hiking, or cycling.

Every year, our dev teams down tools on client work and flex their creative muscles in an ‘innovation week’. This is an opportunity to pair up, or work in teams, to build any piece of technology they want, whether it’s relevant to our business or not. We use Monopoly money to ‘invest’ in the winners and offer prizes to the most popular. The levels of creativity get more impressive every year, and it builds trust and camaraderie, so we make time for it – no matter how busy we are.

Lean on technology

Agile working requires strong and consistent use of technology – particularly if you’ve introduced flexible working, and if your teams are physically separated by proximity.

Make sure that, whatever communication tools and apps your teams use, they can support team project work and virtual meetings and that the same apps are used by all, consistently across the business. Fragmented use of technology can hinder productivity.

The knock-on effect of a workforce that regularly works remotely is that the office environment changes. The traditional desktop computers on assigned desks are replaced by break out spaces for meetings and brainstorms, quiet booths for making phone calls and tables for collaborative work. Most days, half of our workforce doesn’t show up in the office, so we’ve adjusted the space accordingly, with standing desks and sofas.

Nigel Davies is founder of digital workplace Claromentis

Further reading on agile working

Related Topics

Agile working

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