Over the last two years, the way we work has changed dramatically. Big shifts have happened on every level for every business. Customer priorities have switched from cost and convenience to health and safety. Digital transformation within businesses has accelerated by an estimated 7 years. And workforces themselves have had to switch to remote-first models; recently, Deloitte announced it was switching to an ultra-flexible office policy forever.
In the face of such unprecedented turbulence, only one thing has remained constant: the need for an agile workforce. In short, agility is the ability to be flexible with decision-making processes in order to better respond to changing events. It’s always been important: 90% of executives say agility is critical to business performance. Now, it’s more of a priority than ever – especially for talent teams tasked with building candidate pipelines to ensure businesses thrive in the future of work.
What is an agile workforce?
Agile businesses keep ahead of competition by adapting to changing market and customer needs quickly. It’s easier said than done. The bigger businesses get, the harder it can be for them to flex their strategy and react fast. Many find themselves working in silos, locked into hierarchies and blocked by bureaucracy – making efficient, cross-functional decision-making a nightmare.
Agile workforces are characterised by 3 traits:
Autonomy: Agile workforces don’t over-rely on top-down direction, but can identify problems and are empowered to find solutions. Critically, the business trusts them to do so, and doesn’t slow them down by making them wait for approval, or follow outdated processes.
Flexibility: Likewise, agile workforces don’t work in silos. They’re typically flatter in structure, made up of small, cross-functional project teams that can move nimbly to get solutions from ideation to production. While they’re all working towards core values and a common vision, the way they get there is by forming independent cells that form around a specific problem, then once that is solved, separate and rearrange themselves around new problems.
Speed: When workforces are empowered and flexible, speed follows naturally. By removing the barriers of hierarchy and silos, everyone in an agile workforce can stay close to changing business and customer needs. It means they pick up on trends quicker, and can respond to them before competitors do.
Why build an agile workforce?
Agile workforces are worth building because they perform better. Teams that are empowered and equipped to work in agile ways can have a substantial impact on the bottom line.
Reduce overheads: Agile teams are organized differently, and therefore do not have the same overhead costs. Instead of necessitating a pyramidal structure with isolated silos and long reporting chains, they have a central core organization that keeps everyone aligned on the common vision, and a network of small, cross-functional, project-based teams that can more or less function as independent business units. With the right tools, they can work more efficiently and productively than teams in silos, making decisions faster, iterating on results whenever necessary, and giving their organization an edge on the market.
Improve outcomes for customers: Agile structure means fewer layers between leadership and the customer. As a result, agile teams have a better understanding of the needs and problems of their target customer—they can research and test theories faster, and act on new trends more quickly, therefore reducing the risk that the business will be caught by surprise. Finally, they are able to go from idea to test to iteration to market very quickly, and it gives them a solid advantage over the competition.
Reduce employee churn: Empowered teams that feel trusted to work flexibly are usually happier teams, and the agile methodology is all about empowering smaller units with larger decisions. With the right infrastructure in place, an agile structure also gives employees the ability to take more control over their growth path by outlining all the new projects they might be able to participate in, and how they will impact their growth. As a result, employees stay longer and develop their skills in a way that aligns with the company’s needs, leading to higher retention and better business results.
In a recent Beamery webinar, 59% of attendees said that digital transformation and organisational agility were the greatest challenges facing their business in the coming year. Even as the world begins to return to work, businesses are still experiencing an enormous amount of flux, and are likely to see continued and rapid evolution over the coming years. That being the case, talent teams need to focus on hiring candidates with flexible, cross-functional skillsets who are receptive to working in an agile environment. It will not only enable better business performance in the short term, but also help build a modular internal talent pool that can be reconfigured as needs change in the long term – which they will.
How to build an agile workforce
Candidates that would be a great fit for an agile structure are slightly different; it is worth it for talent teams to think carefully about who they need to hire for such a specific type of organization. However, even more critical is the company's approach to talent management. The wider business needs to create the environment and encourage the working practices that drive a culture of individual agility.
This starts with mapping the people —and skills— the business already has. Establishing whether existing employees have the right skills - or potential to upskill- to work inside an agile framework will help talent teams determine whether they need to hire new people, or can meet business goals by retraining and re-skilling those they already have.
If new hires are needed, talent teams should focus their search around candidates with “agile” skills. Agile skills are transferable, allowing candidates to adapt and succeed even as the parameters of their job description change. Beyond specific role-based competencies, agile candidates will also show an aptitude for resilience and data-driven reasoning, be self-starters, feel motivated by challenge and confident in making decisions in ambiguous environments.
Where businesses already have the right people on board, talent teams can increase their impact (and reduce hiring overheads) by facilitating internal mobility. Agile employees are likely to want to exercise autonomy over their career paths, and within an agile framework, they’ll be empowered to do so. Not everyone wants to be a people manager, and businesses shouldn’t force high-performers down that track. Instead, talent teams can create internal platforms for employees to express interest in and apply for new roles, making their own lives easier and ensuring top talent stays in the business.
To create the sort of talent structure necessary for an agile workforce, talent teams need to shift towards total lifecycle management: an approach to talent that considers individuals' current skills and level of proficiency, but also their goals and ability to grow within the business. In order to implement this sort of approach, your talent team will need to be able to infer skills and capabilities from past companies, job titles and other data points in the candidate profile.
One immediate impact that this evolution will have on talent teams is the possibility of looking at talent as individuals with a living, evolving set of skills with dynamic levels of proficiency, as opposed to static collections of requirements that fit an existing open role. In other words, companies will soon be able to look at an individual and understand not only the skills they have today and the value they can currently bring to the business, but how they can and want to grow, and how they might grow with the business.
With the recent upheaval of the global job market that the Covid-19 pandemic has created, talent teams are thinking in terms of hybrid working models, both full-time and part-time, contract, project-based, in-person and remotely based throughout the globe. It is only a matter of time before talent lifecycle management becomes necessary to become a more agile organization and continue to be a competitive business.