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Agile Working – the benefits and the pitfalls

Written by:
Paula Coster

BA (Hons), MSc.
Associate Member CIEHF

Agile working is a way of working in which an organisation empowers its workforce to work where, when and how they choose. Thanks to today’s IT and communications technology, it has never been easier for businesses to adopt an agile work culture.

Without the constraints of time or location, people can work in ways which suit their own preferences and needs with the focus being on performance and quality of tasks, and less about where they are done. This paradigm shift in work patterns gives us numerous opportunities but also brings about new challenges.

What are the benefits of agile working?

Allowing a degree of flexibility in where people work brings many benefits to the employee and to the employer.

For the employee

You may be one of the lucky ones who can walk to work, but for many of us a rush-hour commute, in heavy traffic or on an expensive crowded train is a daily reality.  By making use of flexibility, agile workers can mostly avoid this.

Motorists are spending an average of 31 hours in traffic a year, at a cost of £1,168.
In London drivers in the capital face 73 hours sat in traffic each year at a cost of £2,430.
Data compiled by traffic information supplier Inrix.

Furthermore, cutting down on commuter traffic and on journeys to work particularly during the rush hour has huge environmental benefits which is something we should all embrace.

The cost of work-related mental health problems is large and growing. The numbers should alarm us all.

15.4 million working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18
Source: Estimates based on self-reports from the Labour Force Survey

Numerous studies have found that flexible working arrangements can have a significant positive impact on people’s mental health with better sleep and lower stress levels as common outcomes. Equally, someone’s mental health can have a significant impact on their ability to perform well in their job.  Promoting well-being at work must form part of the solution.

Improving the wellbeing of your workforce leads to increased productivity. A study carried out by management firm BPS World in 2017 reports 67% of businesses enjoyed a 10%+ increase in productivity, while YouGov reported in 2017,  89% of employees considered flexible working was a primary factor behind increasing their productivity. A gain for employers and employees.

Gains for the employer

While many businesses still view agile work as an employee perk, there are definitely many upsides for employers as well.

Offering a flexible work pattern allows businesses to attract staff from a wider pool of talent, for example, those who geographically are based in a faraway location or those who need a greater degree of flexibility such as parents of younger children.

Then there are the business premises themselves. Allowing staff to work away from the office can lead to less demand for desk space, room and capacity. Introducing agile working results in a more cost-effective workplace in terms of office furnishing and occupational costs.

And the caveats of agile working

Progress is rarely without cost. Alongside new opportunities, flexible work patterns present us with some challenges.

Health and safety law still applies, wherever your workforce is working and as an employer, you must carefully consider how you can stay compliant protecting you, your staff and your business. You should be mindful of common issues which can compromise the health and well-being of your agile workforce and impact on productivity.

One of the biggest challenges is display screen equipment (DSE).  Neck and backache, fatigue, stress, and wrist and shoulder pain are common complaints resulting from poor or inadequate equipment or incorrect use. If someone is working from home for a significant amount of time, a proper, compliant workstation needs to be set up there.

For mobile workers, there are different or additional challenges surrounding both the use of mobile equipment and travel.  Issues regarding privacy and security need to be considered as well as the provision of suitable DSE.  If a laptop is used, you should provide a safe means of transporting it such as a wheeled case or backpack plus, ideally a separate mouse and keyboard.  Staff training in correct manual handling goes a long way in helping people avoid injury.

If your agile workforce spends a lot of time driving, there’s an additional risk of serious long term muscle, joint and spinal injury and a vehicle/driver assessment or driver awareness training should be considered.

Agile working will not suit everyone. It can be an unappealing prospect for anyone who struggles with time management. Inevitably it’s too be easy to let work ‘creep’ into non-working time at the cost of family life. This blurring of lines leads to an ‘always available’ culture which can definitely be a stressor. It is important that a work/life balance is achieved.  Task management tools, training and training can help employees achieve this.

Agile working can also lead to isolation and some workers will find their mental health is affected by the lack of social contact. Good management will be cognizant of this and take steps to minimise the risk. Scheduling regular meetings and using other methods to keep in touch: conference calls, Skype etc can go a long way to keeping remote staff in the loop and feeling included.

To conclude

Flexible working isn’t for everyone but it can be a perfect choice for people who need a greater degree of freedom in their working day. One thing is for sure, the trend will continue as technology become faster and smarter. Considering your adaptions today paves the way for you to take advantage of all the opportunities flexible work can give you in the future.

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