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Flexibility vs. Agility: Is Flexibility a Dirty Word?

In some quarters, flexibility has become a dirty word. One to be banished from business terminology for sending the wrong message.

That’s not to say these people and organisations are demanding that their employees are chained to their desks from nine to five and beyond, refusing to allow freedom in working practices. When it comes to being flexible, some of the most forward-looking are the ones reluctant to use the words ‘flexible working’ any longer.

The reason? They take issue with the perception of the term and the way it has been used in the past.

Flexible working, they believe, has come to mean an employee accommodation – something done to keep staff happy that is really bad for business. In fact, flexibility makes total business sense. To counter the negative perceptions among the slower to adopt, they argue that the term ‘agility’ is more appropriate.

Proving the benefits

In the UK a coalition of businesses and government organisations have come together under the umbrella of the Agile Future Forum (AFF), taking on the challenge of proving the gains in productivity and revenue – cold hard cash – that can be achieved by taking an agile (or flexible) approach.

Founding AFF members include Citi, Ford and KPMG, and the group’s initial report was compiled by consultants at McKinsey & Company. It discovered that founder members are enjoying benefits equivalent to 3-13% of their workforce costs through their agile practices, with opportunities of a further 3-7% of workforce costs and sales uplift of up to 11%.

The group has set out to prove to the unenlightened that being flexible is in their own interest as well as a ‘nice’ thing to do, and those figures are hard to ignore.

Fiona Cannon is chief executive of the AFF, and director of diversity and inclusion at Lloyds Banking Group. “Historically flexibility has been seen as an employee benefit and not a benefit to the business,” she says. “We want to move away from the traditional thinking to a much broader definition of business agility.

“Where you do have more agile working, the impact on your bottom line is fundamental. Because all the research has been employee-side, for some flexible working is seen as a cost, rather than a way of operating that will make us fit for purpose in the 21st century and beyond.”

The AFF found that businesses operating in an agile/flexible way were able to match the workforce to fluctuations in demand, increase the quality of their outputs and attract and retain high quality talent. None of this, they feel, is captured in our perceptions of ‘flexibility’.

Fighting for flexibility

So is it this simple? Should we change our terminology to agility and leave flexible working behind us? Sarah Jackson, chief executive of UK charity Working Families, which works with employers to make family-friendly workplaces, says no. She argues that agility is all well and good, but the average worker will not be making an ‘agile working request’ any time soon. The term understood and used by employees is flexible working – and that needs to stay.

“It is true that for many people, flexible working still means some sort of accommodation which is offered to the mothers of babies or young children. It’s not for everyone, and not for people who are serious about their career. So it is not surprising that many organisations are taking up the agility brand, both to get around this perception and also to express a much more ambitious vision for flexibility, encompassing a real culture change around how work is organised,” she says.

“But… that does not mean that we should drop the term flexible working. It has become a well-known brand. Fine for it to be positioned as part of your organisation’s agility programme, but remember that the prospective employee is more likely to recognise and respond to your flexible working offer.”

Jackson adds that there are other potential downsides to embracing agility terminology to the exclusion of flexibility. “I am also picking up a growing scepticism about the term agility among workers, who fear that agile working translates into job cuts and increased workloads for those who remain. I don’t think flexible working will disappear from common use just yet.”

So perhaps the answer has to lie somewhere in the middle. At Flexible Boss we believe both terms are useful and deploy them together and individually – because they make an important point. Flexible/agile working can and should work for both businesses and their employees. When it does organisations can hit the sweet spot of higher productivity, engagement and retention levels, and individuals can balance their ‘lifescape’.

Those who ignore this face being left behind in a forward-looking global economy. And if you’re in that position, it really doesn’t matter what you call it.

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