Creating an Agile Workplace: How to Prepare for the Unexpected

Creating an Agile Workplace: How to Prepare for the Unexpected

Andrew Douthwaite

July 23, 2020

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way many companies conduct business, and not all organizations have handled the jarring transition to remote work smoothly. Daily operations and working conditions can be disrupted in an instant, so your organization needs to be able to adapt quickly and effectively to any situation.
Though no situations are exactly alike, there are a few tools and guidelines you can follow to help ensure the next time a sudden pivot in your workforce is needed it’s as smooth as possible.
By being agile, your organization is set up for success in any situation.

What Makes a Workplace Agile?

Agility in the workplace typically focuses on quickly adapting to the changing needs of customers, workers, and the overall marketplace. The current global health crisis has brought with it a renewed urgency for flexible, agile, and adaptable workplaces as many traditional office-setting workplaces transform into distributed workplaces. Though some organizations may be able to return to the office soon, the fact is that work as we know it has been disrupted, and those disruptions will be felt for quite a while.

What Steps Can I Take to Increase My Organization’s Agility?

While seasoned remote workers already have the skills to ensure their work gets done no matter where they are, an organization that has to suddenly pivot to remote work faces a unique set of challenges. Even if your individual workers are set up for success, can stay productive, and are able to easily meet their deadlines, you need to ensure that your entire workforce is able to continue to work together effectively.

Communication is Key

Frequent, open, and transparent communication is always important, but when your workers are no longer working out of a centralized location, effective communication becomes even more vital for maintaining productivity. Those spontaneous brainstorming sessions over lunch, impromptu meetings, and watercooler chatter may not always appear to be productive, but they play a huge role in developing and maintaining group cohesion and encouraging the flow of ideas.
To help retain some of that impromptu team building and idea generation, you might want to encourage managers to regularly host scheduled coffee meetings or happy hours with their teams. If your organization doesn’t use an instant messaging product like Slack or Microsoft Teams already, now is a great time to adopt that technology. Instant messaging apps can be leveraged for both more serious business discussions and the lighthearted workplace chatter that used to happen over coffee or lunch or around the water cooler.

Adapt Your Communication Style to Suit Your Workers

To help empower your newly configured workforce, you will need to be able to communicate with different categories of workers effectively. This may include your regular remote workers, your newly remote workers, workers who are currently unable to work, and any essential workers you may have that must be physically present in your workplace to complete their tasks.
How you communicate with each group may differ, but you might want to consider using internal messaging apps (like those mentioned above) in conjunction with email campaigns to reinforce key messages and text messages for urgent matters. Try out several different communication styles and see which ones are most effective for which groups and reassess your approach to communication as necessary to promote collaboration and ensure critical messages are being received.

Be Proactive

Any good manager knows that it’s best to tackle potential problems before they become actual problems. By communicating effectively with your workers you can learn about potential problems or sticking points before they become major issues. While it may seem costly to act proactively, investing a bit of time, people power, and funds to address potential issues as soon as they come to light can save your organization more in the long run.
How you choose to keep an ear to the ground is up to you and your organization, but regular check-ins between workers and their managers, between managers and their department heads, and between department heads and the executive team can help prevent information silos from forming and ensure that potential issues are escalated appropriately so they can be addressed.

Focus on Retaining Workers

There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, so holding onto experienced workers (and their vital skillsets) is more important than ever. When a critical worker leaves, it can cause a frenzy of uncertainty as workers try to bridge the gap until a replacement worker can be found, causing unnecessary stress and anxiety. Even once a replacement is found, it can take months for them to fully settle in and come up to speed, disrupting your everyday workflow.
Have mechanisms in place so that departing workers can train their replacements before they go on maternity leave, retire, or switch to another organization. You may want to record training sessions so they can be reviewed as necessary or used to train other workers down the line. By setting up the replacement worker for success, you not only minimize disruption but also reduce worker stress and anxiety during transitions.

The Importance of a Good Attitude

However, skills aren’t everything. If you are able to expand your team and choose to do so, make sure you weigh intangible skills (effective communication, positive attitude, proactivity, etc.) as well as looking at the tangible skills required to do the job.
Having workers that are flexible, proactive, and positive can help you weather tough times and reduce friction in the workplace. Skills can be taught, but the right attitude is a lot harder to cultivate if workers don’t have the right mindset to begin with.

Empower Your Workers

How do you feel when you delegate tasks to your team? Are you relieved knowing that they have the right skills and attitude for the job, or anxious that you won’t be there to oversee everything and double-check their work?
Someone who works for an organization that empowers their workers is more likely to feel the former: confident that their team has the skills to handle things on their own.
Empowering people is about more than just giving them unfamiliar tasks; it is about encouraging your workers to challenge themselves and letting them know that you believe they can achieve their goals by periodically taking people out of their comfort zones.
You can encourage your workers to take appropriate risks by:

  • Delegating a variety of tasks, such as having a junior member run a meeting or letting your second in command take the lead on the next big project
  • Rotating roles so that employees can cross-train, building their skillset, and deepening their understanding of their co-workers’ roles
  • Giving your workers the autonomy they need to perform tasks on their own. Training wheels are fine, but they eventually need to come off
  • Encouraging your workers to behave like team leaders
  • Creating room for independent decision making
  • Allowing workers to experiment and try new things without the fear of failure

Don’t Forget the Human Factor

Businesses are run on more than technology and processes; the human element plays a critical role in any business or organization. By encouraging teamwork, escalating conversations when necessary, and creating organic opportunities for knowledge transfer, you can teach your workers to collaborate more effectively and give them a chance to develop a deeper respect for their co-workers and their contributions to the organization. This not only promotes social cohesion, but encourages cross training so that employees can remain flexible and, in a pinch, take on new tasks when emergencies and other unexpected changes occur.

Promote Collaboration & Autonomy

A strict hierarchy can be restrictive, delaying ad hoc projects and creating frustration, particularly for workers at the bottom. Establishing horizontal communication channels as well as vertical ones, can increase collaboration and reduce delays.
Another way to make your workforce more agile is to allow teams to work on their own without requiring management to constantly steer the ship. Create a team and invite one of its members to temporarily adopt the role of team leader. Give the team tangible objectives and a reasonable timeline for a project and see what they create. By creating self-managing teams, you can drive collaboration and enhance learning, making your organization more agile overall.

Feel Free to Experiment

A driving principle for many highly agile organizations is that experimentation drives innovation, which leads to change. It’s important to not only be able to respond to change (or adversity) effectively but approach it proactively and be a driving force for change.
Being able to adapt to change can help keep your business afloat, but having the ability to propel change can help ensure you stay ahead of the competition.
However, it is one thing to pay lip service to some vague idea of change and another thing entirely to put your money where your mouth is. Don’t just focus on the executive suite or department managers and ask everyone else to follow their lead, but instead encourage every employee, from the summer intern up to the CEO to get involved.
Many organizations encourage this by giving employees time on the clock to dedicate to their alternative musings. This not only encourages experimentation but gives workers the chance to fail (and fail fast) before moving onto their next idea.
You can encourage experimentation at all levels of your organization by:

  • Having regularly scheduled brainstorming sessions
  • Encouraging team members to discuss their interests beyond work
  • Actively encouraging workers to work on ideas that resonate with them
  • Offering personal support and help if and when required
  • Eliminating or reducing constraints when possible

Being agile is not only important for weathering the COVID-19 storm, but also for weathering future storms and remaining at the forefront of your industry. By taking the time and energy needed to help promote agility at all levels of your organization, you can help future-proof your company and create a great place for workers to work, learn, and grow.

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