Workforce agility can be defined as, “the capacity of employees to adapt dynamically to unpredictable and continually changing work demands to ensure organisational success.” Changing circumstances could include emerging customer requirements, new technologies, competitor activity and broader social, political and economic trends.
Developing workforce agility is a primary concern for many organisations because we are now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterised by an accelerating rate of digital adoption and transformation. As an example, it took 14 years for computers to reach 50 million users, 7 years for the Internet, 3 years for Facebook, and then only 19 days for Pokemon Go. This technological revolution is drastically changing how individuals, organisations, governments and societies operate. Beyond this, the Covid-19 pandemic has also rapidly changed the nature of work, with many organisations and roles expected to switch permanently to a hybrid or remote working model. All of this requires organisations, teams and individuals to adopt an agile mindset that enables them to be nimble, adjusting and changing direction quickly to respond to emerging demands, technologies and opportunities.
Organisations need to have agility in their workforce because, while change is not a new challenge, the pace and scope of this change today is accelerating more than ever before. This disruptive work context is being driven by digital innovation such as artificial intelligence and robotics, the growth of the gig economy, and increasing globalisation of information, products and services.
These changes present both challenges and opportunity for organisations and the workforce. Research by the World Economic Forum found that employers estimated that, on average, 42% of the skills required within a job will have shifted significantly over the next 5 years, and 54% of all employees will need significant re-skilling and up-skilling. Organisations need to have an agile workforce that can continually adapt and adjust quickly to this ever-changing context, so they can maintain competitive advantage. It is also important for organisations to be able to move people into different areas of work within the organisation according to emerging demands. Individuals in the workforce will need to be able to develop their skills continually as new job requirements and demands emerge over time.
What are the benefits of having an agile workforce?
Workforce agility is beneficial by helping to ensure that organisations can evolve and adapt to meet future demands. Employees with an agile mindset, and who are empowered by their organisational climate, will anticipate new market requirements, identify new innovations, challenge current thinking, harness technological advancements and make rapid decisions. They can navigate highly complex, uncertain and continually changing work situations effectively and efficiently. Having agility in the workforce also means that organisations will be able to move their employees into different areas of work and up-skill or re-skill as needs and requirements evolve.
An agile workforce enables an organisation to keep up with the pace of change and ultimately thrive in today’s disruptive work context. An agile mindset is also beneficial for individual employees, as it will help them to learn new skills and take on different roles over time.
What does an agile workforce look like?
Employees with an agile mindset:
Embrace change and are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Have good external awareness, in terms of market trends and emerging customer requirements.
Are curious and proactive in exploring new approaches and technology.
Feel empowered to challenge the status quo and are not afraid to try things and fail if it enables future improvement.
Make quick decisions based on available information and iterate rapidly based on feedback.
Build relationships quickly and are effective at working collaboratively as part of cross-functional teams.
Readily learn new skills and approaches to meet emerging demands, so they can be deployed to solve different organisational issues and challenges over time.
Agile teams are characterised by having high levels of psychological safety, trust, open communication, inclusive practices and a continuous desire to learn and improve.
What are the attributes of an agile employee?
These seven key competencies signify openness and flexibility in how individuals think, harness digitalisation, connect with others and manage their own well-being. Together, they provide a robust foundation for people to adapt positively to change, ambiguity and complexity – enabling them to go from surviving to thriving at work.
Being able to appraise data and information from a range of sources, quickly understand what is essential for decision-making and objectively question ideas and assumptions.
Actively and objectively evaluating their experiences to identify learning points and applying learnings to new situations and opportunities.
Grasping and leveraging new technologies rapidly, either through personal learning or by empowering others to achieve innovations and efficiencies.
Being able to connect easily with others in both virtual and face-to-face contexts, gaining trust quickly and maintaining effective relationships.
Seeking out and actively including diverse individuals and perspectives to successfully create ideas and solve business challenges.
Coping with inevitable setbacks in a disruptive working context and bouncing back from these effectively.
Maintaining a positive attitude towards change in work activities, skill requirements, and organisational structures, by embracing the change and appreciating the opportunities it presents.
How do I create an agile workforce?
To create an agility within a workforce, organisations must embed this philosophy across their talent management practices. The structures, processes and reward systems within the organisation should encourage empowerment of teams and individuals at all levels. Organisations should focus on providing flat structures and decentralising rules to empower employees to operate flexibly, work autonomously and make quick decisions within an appropriate remit. Leaders should encourage and reward agile thinking and behaviour within their teams and facilitate cross-functional working that promotes sharing of ideas and working practices. Performance management should focus on the continuous learning and development of employees.
Talent acquisition at all levels should consider competencies that signify an agile mindset within external selection processes. Relevant attributes include positive change orientation, critical thinking, learning agility, digital dexterity, building relationships, embracing diversity and resilience. These are transferable attributes which will enable individuals to readily adjust to change and navigate a disruptive work context. Similarly, learning and development opportunities and workforce agility initiatives should be provided to support existing employees to improve in these attributes. This could include provision of e-learning, development workshops and coaching focused on developing an agile mindset. Team-level development interventions should focus on cultivating openness, trust, psychological safety, collaboration and nimble decision-making.
How do I develop organisational workforce agility?
Developing workforce agility is as much about organisational climate as individual employees. Leaders need to create a climate founded on psychological safety, empowerment, continuous learning and teamwork. They need to foster a working environment where employees feel safe to speak up, take risks and trusted to make quick decisions. Leaders also need to encourage employees to collaborate and to seek diverse perspectives to solve complex issues. All of this requires leaders to demonstrate emotional intelligence and awareness of their own impact, as well as establish organisational systems and processes that enable agility rather than hinder it. For example, leaders should focus on empowering teams and individuals to take decisions at a suitable level, rather than seeking to micromanage and sign-off every decision regardless of importance. If leaders show a lack of trust in employees and create a climate where employees fear mistakes being punished, then this will drastically inhibit an organisation’s agility.
Organisations should provide learning and development opportunities to help employees to develop an agile mindset, such as coaching and blended learning programmes. These could focus on helping employees to become comfortable with uncertainty and change, developing cognitive flexibility and establishing agile working practices. These workforce agility initiatives could also focus on enabling employees to learn new knowledge and skills which mean they can respond to changing job demands, utilise new technologies or move into new areas of work that benefit the organisation. From a broader perspective, organisations should seek to embed a learning culture within day-to-day functioning. Ultimately, employees should be encouraged to evaluate and reflect continuously on current practices and emerging customer demands, so they can identify ways to improve, iterate and innovate.