Anna Meller
   

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Agile working is the 21st century panacea that promises to support work-life balance while overcoming biases around flexible working. In the last few years agile has emerged as the sexy term for working anywhere at any time. But is it all that it’s cracked up to be?

Before we had agile working we had flexible working which in turn had its roots in family friendly workplace practices. In the UK much of the growth in flexible working arrangements has been driven by the Right to Request legislation; and for that reason many people equate flexible with reduced hours. It’s a way of working primarily for those unable to make a full-time commitment to their career.

On the face of it agile is different. It harnesses technologies that connect us to our work 24/7 so we have the potential to combine work and caring in ways that better suit our needs. The problem here is that instead of supporting us to work any time, anywhere it’s pushing many of us to work all the time, everywhere. This in turn is leading to an #AlwaysOn culture that is increasingly impacting negatively on wellbeing. Shockingly, award winning research conducted by Professors Gail Kinman and Almuth McDowall revealed more than half of respondents receiving no guidance from their employer on how to manage this technology; while few workplaces had a work-life balance policy.

One explanation for this sorry state of affairs may be that in many organisations the push for agile working often starts outside the HR function. For example, in the civil service it was implemented as part of a wider strategy to reduce premises costs. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that work is work wherever and whenever it happens, while forgetting that in the past the boundaries between work and non-work time were more clearly demarcated.

This growing blurring of boundaries poses challenges for working parents trying to flex around childcare. Mothers in particular are often so grateful to be allowed a working arrangement that promises to support their work-life balance they willingly blur the boundaries between work and non-work. It’s their way of showing commitment to career while trying to meet the high standards demanded of them as parents. The result – as Dr Chris Grant of Coventry University has found – is women exhausted by the triple shift of work then childcare followed by more work once the children are asleep.

I’m led to believe the term agile was borrowed from emergent software development methodologies of the same name. In the tech world Agile is an iterative approach to software development in which requirements and solutions evolve through cross functional team collaboration. Contrast that with agile working. We have no methodology for arriving at an ‘agile job’, no collaboration and no iteration. We’ve simply rebranded ‘old wine into new bottles’.

What if we did adopt agile methodologies for creating working arrangements that both support work-life balance and improve productivity? We would use the same approach as our software colleagues:

>We would focus on the outputs – in this case the high value activities we want a particular job to deliver.

>We would work collaboratively – supporting each other to find effective new ways of working and to break down outmoded cultural expectations that get in the way.

>We would harness the collective expertise that lurks under the radar in many workplaces and supplement that with training in job redesign for managers.

>And we would make it an iterative process – collecting regular feedback on what’s working and what needs to be adjusted.

If we’re committed to improving agile working the time has come to make job redesign part of HR strategy. The inexorable rise of both Artificial Intelligence and the Gig Economy is pushing us to rethink the way we structure work anyway. We have an unparalleled opportunity to re-shape jobs so they make the best use of valuable skills and support work-life balance at the same time. That way we’re laying the foundations for more sustainable ways of working.

Let’s finally concede that 20th century working practices don’t fit 21st century lives. And that the cobbled together piecemeal approach we’ve been taking until now won’t improve things.

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