The secret to… agile working

Don’t stifle employees with a rigid office set-up. Flexibility and team work are where it’s at for forward-looking businesses

The secret to… agile working

Don’t stifle employees with a rigid office set-up. Flexibility and team work are where it’s at for forward-looking businesses

For Winston Churchill, it was simply a matter of getting the priorities right. “First,” he said, “we shape our places, then our places shape us.” Like the office, for instance.

Possibly your shape is delicately hunchbacked after years crouched over a corner desk.

Multiplying in offices all around you, meanwhile, are embodiments of agility, flinging brainwaves across open-plan workspaces and embracing each Monday morning as a new adventure. Agile working is a concept devised by the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota to get production lines moving faster. It’s been adopted by firms such as Sky and BT to transform their work ethos; there’s even an agile manifesto detailing the founding principles.

Unfortunately, you can’t become agile all by yourself; the whole company has to limber up too. Here’s the starting template.

Shed the desks. 

What you do is more important than where you are. “Managers like to see people so they can grab them when they need them,” Allsopp says. “That makes managers lazy. They should give people whole projects with end-targets and trust them to get on with it. The office should be configured to suit different needs with touch-down bases for homeworkers dropping in, round tables for team work, private booths, and lounge areas for informal business.”

Shed the hierarchies. 

Agility is all about team-working as opposed to managerial dictates. “Toyota put its workers in pairs, often a novice with an expert because the former learns from the latter and might occasionally come up with a new way of doing something,” says Martin McNulty, general manager of the digital agency Forward3D and an evangelist of agile working. “They also checked each other’s work, saving the need for quality-control departments.”


Rather than spending weeks planning an entire project, break it down into small components and get the team straight to work, advises Stuart Eccles of Made By Many, an “agile” digital company. “You can test each stage, gather feedback and adapt as you go along, rather than waiting for an end result that doesn’t deliver.”

Create a card wall. 

When you’ve broken down a task, sort out the components according to importance, write them on to cards and stick them on a wall. “Aim for components that can be achieved in a day,” says McNulty. “The team members then give daily feedback and the card order or content can be switched around according to their findings.”

Embrace failure. 

Without risk you can’t innovate. “Once they realise that it’s OK to fail, people become more creative,” McNulty says. “With agile working there’s no project management or quality control – everyone takes equal responsibility, and if you struggle with something you can guarantee you’ll be given that task along with someone more experienced, so you can overcome your difficulties.”

Be flexible. 

“People move around the whole office, reforming in different teams when a project is finished, rather than being structured in departments,” Eccles says. “No one is hidden away and people who aren’t pulling their weight are immediately exposed.”

Ditch the memo pad. 

Face-to-face is the best way to communicate, preferably with the whole team gathered before the card wall or whiteboard. This prevents problems being hidden.

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