The centrality of work to people’s lives has significantly diminished in the last ten years. New research from the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, in partnership with the Agile Future Forum, found that just a quarter (28%) of employees surveyed think that work is central to their lives, compared to almost half (48%) of employees when asked the same question in 2005. With people seeking more from their working lives, the CIPD is urging business leaders to recognise that by finding mutually beneficial working arrangements that match individual expectations to business needs, organisations will be in a much stronger position to develop a workforce that performs better overall, and particularly in fast-moving conditions.

‘HR: Getting smart about agile working’ explores how the HR function can develop and support the traits of an ‘agile’ business, which, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, include rapid decision-making and execution, a high-performance culture, flexibility of management practices and resources and organisational structures that support collaboration.

The report also found that, in line with changing career expectations, the norm of where, when and how people prefer to work is changing. Over a third (35%) of employees said they would like to change their working arrangements and of those, the majority (43%) would most like to change the start or finish time of their day. Just under a half (45%) of employees take phone calls or respond to emails outside of their working hours (with over a third choosing to stay contactable rather than being pressured to do so). One in five (21%) works from home at least once a week, and one in ten (10%) spend most of their time at a client or customer.

Ksenia Zheltoukhova, Research Adviser at the CIPD, said: “If organisations want to get the best out of their people they have to get smarter about understanding how, when and where individuals want to work. Our research provides clear evidence that many businesses are out of step with employee expectations, although by meeting employee expectations, they stand to have greater employee engagement, a more productive workforce and stronger organisational performance. To achieve this though, organisations must question assumptions about people management practices and processes, and establish working solutions that are of value both to individuals and to the business.”

While the changing nature of work and shifting employee expectations require a greater degree of flexibility in when, where, and how people work, the research found that many organisations are struggling to embrace new ways of working. Lack of trust, cost considerations and misdirected investments are key factors preventing organisations from implementing agile working practices:

Cost management is the number one current priority amongst most organisations (59%), and is a particular challenge for public sector organisations. Prioritising cost management and current operational pressures can hinder organisations’ ability to invest in new ways of working, with a risk of them compromising their long-term potential to support the bottom-line and improve responsiveness to change

Lack of trust in employees who are working remotely and negative attitudes to flexible arrangements are a significant barrier to change, particularly in the public sector. In the survey, 22% of public sector HR leaders (and 15% of private sector HR leaders) suggested that negative line manager attitudes were acting as a barrier to offering flexible working, with a further 19% pointing out negative attitudes among senior leaders (13% in the private sector).  However, suspicion towards new approaches is likely to limit experimentation and could stall wider roll-out of new practices

Efforts to boost agility are often fragmented. Many HR professionals focus attention on workforce planning (64%) and training and development (54%) to improve their organisation’s responsiveness to change. However, less attention is given to creating organisational environments that enable the agile workforce to thrive. Training and development should be complemented by organisational structures and cultures that support flexible working, flexible skill application and better leadership and ownership of tasks at all levels.

Ksenia Zheltoukhova continues: “Our insights show that business leaders see people as the key factor making a difference to improving organisational responsiveness to change. This is a real opportunity for HR professionals to make a strategic contribution to organisational agility through the right people practices. But to deliver on that challenge, the function itself should adopt a more flexible approach and new ways of thinking. They should seize the opportunity to break out of existing stifling structures, re-write the rulebook and experiment with small pilot projects that disprove suspicions and demonstrate a clear business case for flexible working. This can help HR professionals to gain credibility and trust, enabling a wider shift towards more agile ways of working.”

The report identifies two specific areas where HR can make a difference to support smart and agile ways of working:

  • Owning the strategic agility agenda by foreseeing and addressing emerging business needs
  • Using and championing ‘agile’ methodology – utilising experimentation and incremental change to adapt and build people management solutions geared to support current and future business needs.

Fiona Cannon, Director at Agile Future Forum, said: “The way we work – where, when, how and in what role – has been changing and the speed of this change is accelerating.  The traditional model of work used by most UK organisations needs to change too. The Agile Future Forum (AFF) was founded by business leaders who, by adopting agile working practices, have seen additional financial value across sectors equivalent to 3-7% of workforce costs and sales uplift of up to 11% as well as providing personal benefits for their employees.

“The aim of the AFF is to change the cultural mindset of the UK from flexibility to agility, support the increase in agile working practices and to help position the UK as one of the most agile countries in the world. We are very pleased to be working with the CIPD on the issue of workforce agility and believe that HR professionals have an important role in creating a more agile workforce.”