Agile working: What does it mean?

Agile working is about finding the most effective way to get work done without tying people to time and place. The approach aims for maximum flexibility within minimum constraints. It focuses on how well people achieve tasks rather than when and where they perform them.

agile worker using laptop on roofImage: Avi Richards on Unsplash.

The method is a departure from the traditional model in which people swarm to town and city centers to work from nine to five, 5 days a week.

Example definitions and background

At a conference in 2009, Paul Allsopp, Founder of The Agile Organisation, defined the approach. He said it is a way of “bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).”

He makes the point that it is less about when and where people work and more about how well they go about it and what they achieve.

Allsopp also refers to Unilever’s definition of the term. This states that agile working is “an approach to getting work done with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints. It goes beyond just flexible working or telecommuting and focuses on eliminating the barriers to getting work done efficiently.”

In the 1990s, the software industry was already implementing the principle in project management. A 2013 conference paper lists several software development methodologies that incorporate the principles of the approach.

A tool for transforming organizations

In the early 2010s, Unilever were using the term to describe a tool for transforming their 170,000-strong worldwide organization. The primary aim was to improve the firm’s ability to attract and retain “highly engaged talent.”

At around the same time, Sefton Borough Council in the United Kingdom published a guide to employers about agile working. The guide also describes the method as a “transformational tool” for helping organizations to “work smarter by eliminating all barriers to working efficiently.”

Distinguishing features

Some of the distinguishing features of agile working include:

  • Measuring performance and results instead of time spent on tasks.
  • Creating different workspaces for different levels of concentration.
  • Investing in technology that makes it easy for workers to be mobile.

Some companies that have abandoned measuring time have gone so far as to implement an unlimited vacation policy.

Unlimited vacation policies, however, do not suit every firm. They are more applicable to situations in which the volume of work is highly variable, there is high trust between workers and managers, and where it is easy to measure productivity.

In some ways, the approach resembles flexible working. Those who apply the method say that it goes further than flexible working because it focuses on removing barriers to working more effectively. In other words, while agile working may include some facets of flexible working, it has different aims, scope, and drivers.