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An ‘Agile Approach’ for Business Survival of COVID-19

This year we have seen the most disruptive change to business on a national and international level. Seven months ago, the ‘normal’ way of working for most of us was commuting to the office, face-to-face meetings, chatting to colleagues over cups of coffee, and maybe the occasional after-work drinks. However, the arrival of COVID-19 has turned the ‘norm’ upside down and businesses have been challenged to adapt very quickly to an ever changing and unpredictable landscape. This includes shifting from office-based work to remote working, implementing social distancing regulations, altering supply chains, establishing new collaboration networks with external stakeholders, and managing internal infection incidence responses. All these changes need to be managed whilst mitigating current and future economic impacts on the organisation.

As circumstances continue to change, a strategic approach and a good business continuity plan are crucial for businesses to maintain a ‘forward’ focus; organisations need to reconsider what their current business priorities and needs are and how they can sustain productivity in the future.  An ‘agile’ approach to change is also necessary to help organisations adapt quickly to the rapidly changing environment and new demands. This article highlights the importance of an ‘agile’ approach and provides some guidance on how organisations, leaders and their workforce can remain resilient and survive these challenging times.

What is an ‘agile’ business approach?

CIPD Shaping the Future research (2011) defines agility as ‘the ability to stay open to new directions and be continually proactive, helping to assess the limits or indeed risks of existing approaches and ensuring that leaders and followers have an agile and change-ready mindset to enable them and ultimately the organisation to keep moving, changing, adapting’.

An ‘agile’ business can respond and adapt quickly to change in an effective manner because readiness to change is already implanted into their usual day-to-day business and working practices. They have an organisational structure which supports flexibility, effective collaboration, communication, and knowledge sharing between employees, facilitating a high-performance culture which empowers the whole workforce to tackle rapid change.  They understand how to continuously organise people, skills, and resources to meet their changing business needs and are able to forecast future supply and demand whilst remaining sustainable.

How can your organisation build an ‘agile’ proactive, change-ready workforce?

1) Build a Culture of Empathy: Building empathy at the organisational, leadership and individual level and externally with stakeholders (including clients and suppliers) helps increase understanding which fosters more successful communication and collaboration. The ability of employees and their leaders to empathise, influence and motivate each other lies at the heart of a resilient workforce and making change happen. Understanding pressures which may impact customers, suppliers and contractors gives the opportunity to apply peripheral vision to ‘see and learn’ from others; this may highlight opportunities for mutually beneficial relationship building and new collaboration networks.

2) Use Peripheral Vision: Being able to look around as well as ahead helps see how stakeholders are performing and responding to change which may uncover new opportunities for knowledge sharing or collaboration. In addition, keeping track of employee performance and engagement can help identify drivers and barriers to change or engagement. Keeping this vision ensures employees or teams can constantly be provided with clarity, direction or support, if needed.

3) Encourage Openness and Transparency to Build Trust: Openness and transparency is key to building a people-centred environment of trust which is required for new flexible working arrangements including virtual working. Employees need to feel they are psychologically safe to share their fears and worries and feel empowered to identify their own opportunities to collaborate, knowledge share and learn in new working environments. An environment of trust in which people share ideas and information helps create a workforce which can rapidly adapt to changing demands and work practices. Daily, short team meetings can help foster positive communication, empathy and collaboration between employees and give them an opportunity to discuss any problems and feel connected, especially if they are working remotely.

4) Simplify and Flatten Leadership Hierarchies: By pushing decision making down to team leaders on the front line with clear lines of accountability, individuals are empowered to participate, idea share, problem solve and deliver pre-defined goals and milestone activities. This gives workers a sense of responsibility and ownership which helps them sustain engagement and productivity. An ‘agile’ project management approach can be taken which is collaborative and iterative and fosters the ‘change ready’ mindset where team members reflect, learn, and adjust the project process to meet its end goals.

5) Be Ready to Act Quickly: Agile organisations must be ready to adapt to the changing demands of their environment by seeking advice and different perspectives to inform their decision making, integrate a solution after weighing up these factors, then finally direct the change required. At the beginning of the pandemic some actions had to be performed quickly without much planning to comply with government advice such as furloughing staff or working remotely where possible. As the crisis continues, now is the time for leaders and organisations to sustain the agility they have already shown and be ready for the changes which the pandemic may continue to force upon them.

6) Optimise the Effective Use of Technology for Remote Working: Cloud technologies enable effective collaboration with internal and external stakeholders via virtual meetings, video conference or by optimising the use of already existing Microsoft 365 applications such as Microsoft teams. At the start of the pandemic these technologies fortunately offered a lifeline for many organisations and their employees to stay connected during lockdown at a very short notice. However, to sustain agility organisations must optimise the availability and use of these technologies for their employees in the home. They must ensure their employees are trained in using such technologies, have knowledge of GDPR compliance and are safely using those technologies (e.g. limiting screen time and having regular breaks). New policies and procedures may need to be developed to support organisation-wide remote working.

Picture taken by Sagar Arjan

7) Review and Plan Current Workspace to Sustain Agility: During the lockdown, we saw a huge shift to remote working but after restrictions eased, many businesses are returning their employees to the office. Some employees, however, may feel reluctant going back to ‘business as usual’ preferring to continue working from home due to either personal choice, safety concerns or family commitments. To ensure their needs are met, the CIPD lists three questions employers should carefully consider – Is office work essential? Is it safe? Is it mutually agreed? If the answer to the above is ‘yes’, employers need to plan how to adapt office space in a flexible way that complies with social distancing guidelines. Businesses, for example, can divide open space into multiple work zones which enables individuals to communicate and collaborate whilst maintaining a safe distance. The Health & Safety Executive provides useful guidance on how to make your workplace Covid-19 secure during the pandemic.

What can we take away from managing change the agile way?

We can’t control change, but we can control being agile in our reaction to it! As we continue to face economic and health and safety challenges, organisations need to reflect on their way of working pre-pandemic and consider more efficient ways of agile working post pandemic. This will help them remain sustainable and productive during the rocky times ahead. Attitudes and beliefs towards the new norm may have to be challenged at the employee, managerial and organisational level to create an environment which fosters a positive, ‘agile’ response to change.

Impact can help your organisation adopt and apply the ‘agile’ mindset and approach to change at every level, enabling you to keep ahead of the curve in today’s dynamic climate. Get in touch with our expert Occupational Psychologist Consultants here and become ‘agile’!

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Sagar Arjan, MSc Organisational Psychology student at Alliance Manchester Business School contributed to this article.


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