What is agile working? Here's what office workers need to know


Agile working is becoming increasingly important in companies in these sectors: automotive, banking and pharmaceutical, among others. Photo: dpa

If you are looking at a company that says it has an “agile working environment”, then buckle up, as that comes with a dynamic management philosophy focused on flexibility.

Agile work can be really beneficial, especially when it comes to complex assignments and development work, according to Antje Ducki, Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin.

That approach can allow companies to better take into account changing customer wishes in the course of a complex order, making for more successful collaboration.

“Scrum” is a word that often pops up when it comes to agile working – and in this context, rather than a muddy game of rugby, it means splitting up a complex task into several limited time periods.

Those blocks are known as sprints, says Ducki.

In a sprint, regular consultations are held within the team. At the end of the sprint, the client receives a partial result.

Their feedback is then incorporated into the next stage of work. Sometimes things continue as planned, and sometimes there is a change of direction, as the customer has come up with new ideas in the meantime.

Sprint by sprint, the team draws closer to the final product.

“Working this way can significantly increase effectiveness,” says Ducki, as long as the team is able to work in a manner that is “undisturbed and highly focused” during the individual sprints, without the burden of additional tasks, for example.

Retrospection and teamwork

In a scrum team, you have a scrum master, who is a little like a moderator who accompanies the team and helps them along with questions such as “Where are we?” and “How are things going?” or “What’s the problem right now?”

Such retrospection is a big part of agile working. “The team looks back, looks at who did what, how it went, where there might have been problems and how it could possibly go better next time,” she says.

If things went well and the client is happy, that means the team was good. “Successful agile work is always about teamwork that functions well,” she says.

Professionally, that means less hierarchy and flatter structures, says Svenja Hofert, an author based in Germany specialising in this area.

Employees are given more responsibility in agile working, meaning often, they plan parts of an assignment independently.

For staff, agile working also means that they have to be prepared to communicate with each other much more than in traditional work structures – being practically in constant exchange.

That seeks to allow them to identify and eliminate any possible errors in a work process at an early stage.

Manager as coach

For managers, the role is also different in an agile working environment.

“They stand on the sidelines like a coach and have more of a coordinating role,” says Hofert. Managers make sure the team has good working conditions and that the people are not disturbed.

The manager allows the team to decide on their agile work without interfering too much, says Ducki. That means managers need to have a lot of faith in the team’s ability to perform.

Overall, agile working means a shift in terms of priorities.

Rather than sticking rigidly to a plan designed at the beginning of the assignment, a company reacts quickly and flexibly to changes, in close exchange with the client.

Such an approach can work well for individual staff members. After all, if someone has more responsibility, they can also be much more motivated in their approach to a task, Hofert says.

That applies not least when employees can decide for themselves within a team whether they want to work from home and share information online, or if they want to work together at the office, in a way that is safe amid the pandemic.

The downside

But there are also disadvantages to this way of working.

Agile working is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some employees are fearful of pressure and stress when asked to take on more responsibility.

Managers, too, do not always welcome this method as some fear a loss of power.

There are several prerequisites if agile work is going to succeed at a company, says Ducki.

That starts with complex task structures. Secondly, you need a certain openness in the company. And thirdly, employees and managers alike need to be open to a new way of working together.

“Last but not least, the customers have to go along with it.”

Agile working is becoming increasingly important in companies in the automotive industry, in the banking sector or in the pharmaceutical industry, among others.

Hofert assumes that in the future, there will be more agile working, not less, saying it’s a matter of survival as the world of work becomes more complex.

Will it become more widely accepted in the professional world?

In some areas, yes, says Ducki. It will become rooted in areas where it suits the kind of tasks and work that is under way, such as in IT and where complex development processes are involved. – dpa/Sabine Meuter

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