When Agile Working projects go wrong – the pitfalls to avoid

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  30 Oct 2016   JohnEary

The business case is signed off, the Agile Working project has the backing of senior management, what could possibly go wrong? …well plenty, unfortunately.

Agile Working (or Smart Working if you still use that term) has been with us for a number of years now and almost all the press coverage has invariably been positive and there have been a number of significant success stories. But to assume an Agile Working will always be successfully implemented and easily sustained is unrealistic. So what are the problems? These are some of the problem areas that I have encountered as an Agile Working consultant.

Not getting the governance right. Too often an Agile Working project is made the responsibility of just one department in an organisation, such as property, HR or IT. A single department will not have the knowledge or resources to address all the people, technology and workplace factors that need to be addressed in a successful implementation of Agile Working. The head of a single department may also lack the ‘clout’ to get the cooperation of the other enabling departments. A further error is not to consult the operational managers of the business functions and service departments when the Agile Working strategy is being formulated.

Technology can be a critical to the success or failure of an Agile Working initiative. IT may not perform well when accessed remotely, the infrastructure, both data and voice, may not provide reliable connections in all areas that people choose or need to work. Agile workers may not be confident when using collaborative tools when away from an office environment, where colleagues are not on hand to help or when working outside the normal working hours when the IT helpdesk is closed. People are becoming increasingly sensitive to the equipment they are required to use when out and about. A one-size-fits-all approach for the issue of devices to staff may prove unpopular, e.g. common complaints are that laptops are too heavy or their screens are too small for practical use for the job role.


Agile workers may not be confident when using collaborative tools

Agile Working in the office can also be problematic. Office worksettings may be inappropriate. In some organisations an organisation’s Agile Working initiative is not much more than setting up a hotdesk area with little thought as to how it will be used. For example where there are no protocols on how to take phone calls without distracting colleagues, the resulting noisy environment will be a cause of exasperation.

The additional facilities needed to support the range of work activities – creative, collaborative, and contemplative – may not have been considered or the numbers of these facilities not correctly estimated. The use of cheap, inappropriate furniture will only exacerbate the situation.

Attitudes to Agile Working projects

However the most common problems relate to employees’ attitudes to Agile Working. People may not feel engaged if they have not been consulted when the implementation is planned, and regard Agile Working as merely a cost cutting exercise and feel exploited, as they see no benefits for themselves. Even when people have enthusiastically bought into the Agile Working initiative with high expectations, if there is a lack of continuing communication and/or slow progress, their initial excitement may subside and turn into disenchantment. Regardless of their attitude to the initiative staff may have anxieties. Many staff can become uneasy when they realise that they are no longer sharing an office with team members they are used to seeing every day. In the light of these situations the promised improvements in productivity in the Agile Working business case may prove elusive.


Initial excitement may subside and turn into disenchantment.

The group of employees most likely to push back on Agile Working projects is middle management. Operational middle managers often feel they are the ‘meat in sandwich’. They are urged to embrace new ways of working by senior management while dealing with high expectations of improved work-life balance of the people they manage. Worse still they are expected to continue to meet their targets while managing staff, who are no longer visible to them, in ways that are alien to them. To be fair, managing by results, i.e. assessing outputs in terms of the quality of work done, is a great deal more challenging than using input measures such as hours worked in the office. This group of managers may find that, for them, the glib slogan, ‘work smarter not harder’, is reversed.

Rescue Service

So what is the remedy? Well there are likely to be two scenarios to recover from. If the Agile Working project has not gone much beyond a pilot phase, lessons learned from the pilot trials can be addressed making sure the organisation and all its employees are properly prepared for the full roll out of Agile Working through effective communication and training. If the implementation is already underway then it should still be possible to adopt a number rescue measures to get the initiative back on track but it is a much greater challenge. We have recently initiated an Agile Working Rescue Service that starts by undertaking a ‘healthcheck’ to analyse challenging areas to determine the most appropriate remedies, this can involve rethinking the use of technology, redefining the workstyles assigned to job roles, addressing shortfalls in communication and training and many more factors.

Perhaps most important is the realisation that Agile Working is not about doing the same process at different times and locations but setting reasonable limits so empowering staff are empowered to deliver required outcomes in the most effective way. Sorry middle management but same old, same old won’t cut it.

john-eary-100x100-01.jpgWritten by John Eary, Director of JEC Professional Services Ltd. I have a strong track record in advising organisations on new ways of working and exploiting IT effectively. My blog seeks to provoke thinking on the opportunities and challenges of new ways of working presented by technology.

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