Covid-19 has reshaped all aspects of our lives, including the way we work. But the stress of adapting to new technology and alternate ways of operating has taken its toll on employees – so much so that businesses are now in the throes of a wellbeing crisis.
So, how do employers support the growing numbers of staff suffering from burnout, or struggling to keep up with the changes, while also offering greater flexibility in the workplace for those who have appreciated working from home during the long months of the pandemic?
One solution could be to adopt an agile approach. It is well documented that business agility can improve efficiency and productivity, but many are unaware of the beneficial effect it can have on employee wellbeing. And the impact of a happier workforce on human resources departments, not to mention the benefits to business operations more widely, can be significant.
There are four principles of business agility – placing individuals and interactions over processes and tools; putting working software ahead of comprehensive documentation; valuing customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to change rather than following a plan.
Putting these in place across an organisation can help to stave off some staff wellbeing issues before they arise, says management consultancy BearingPoint’s global sustainability lead, Wiebke Rasmussen: “Adopting agile principles, if really incorporated for the whole organisation, benefits employees’ mental health from a prevention perspective.”
Rasmussen has experience of implementing agile working practices, and understands the benefits it offers businesses, from her prior work in the non-profit sector. Non-profits, she says, “have a very strong focus on participatory approaches and outcome-based solutions they work on. They do a lot of things that really have agile at their roots in the non-profit sector, although they don’t call it that.”
Embracing agile working practices is, she says, “an investment in a healthier organisational structure”.
Putting individuals first
But investing in a healthier structure requires a rethink of working practices and how employees communicate. Manchester-based training provider The Growth Company, which is run as a social enterprise, adopted an agile strategy to try to boost employee wellbeing. Within six months, it saw significant improvements in staff morale. A survey of workers undertaken by the organisation highlighted how employees cherished the impact that the introduction of agile work had had on their work/life balance and, therefore, their wellbeing.
Respondents to The Growth Company survey said they felt they were able to be more open and honest with their line manager about their level of performance and the challenges they needed to overcome to achieve their goals. That increased openness and made the interactions more constructive, too, which meant the business was able to adjust work commitments as well as instigate additional support for employees who were struggling.
Doing, not documenting
“One of the most serious impacts the pandemic has had on the world of work is on employees’ wellbeing,” says Derek Irvine, of HR management firm Workhuman. “Workers around the world have felt the stress and burnout of rapidly adapting to entirely new ways of working.”
Recognising that Workhuman’s traditional systems and processes were no longer tenable, the company changed tack, applying agile principles to all aspects of the business.
“The agile method is all about continuous feedback – try, learn, deliver, iterate, try, fail, learn, deliver, and so on,” explains Irvine. “Agile works because it keeps people focused on consistently moving forward. It also enhances employees’ sense of personal control and autonomy, due to its focus on flexibility.”
The approach has the added benefit of encouraging closer collaboration and can reduce the mental burden on workers by chunking up tasks into smaller, easier-to-achieve goals. That shift in focus to what can be done, rather than making sure everything is perfect, helps to alleviate unnecessary stresses on employees, he says. “I can see how it could easily apply in other areas of life, too.”
Putting workers first
Putting the customer or end user first – a central pillar of an agile strategy – is another boon for wellbeing. “It’s all about contributing to a larger goal and feeling like your efforts are valued – and the positive effect that has on people’s wellbeing,” says Rasmussen.
Purpose has become a major driver for many employees and a key choice they make when deciding where to work.
According to research by management consulting firm McKinsey, seven out of 10 employees’ sense of purpose is formed by what they do in the workplace. “I would say it’s about self-empowerment,” says Rasmussen.
By putting employees first, and fuelling their inspiration, businesses can heighten wellbeing and head off issues before they arise, she says. “Feeling empowered does something to your self-confidence” – with knock-on effects on the overall mental health of staff as a result.
A third of British workers surveyed by Canadian HR firm LifeWorks said that offering flexibility in the workspace was the most important action that could support their good mental health.
“Employees want flexibility that allows them to manage life issues as they come up, and to organise their work situation in a way that works for them,” says Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at the company, which advises businesses on their agile wellbeing strategies.
Structuring work in an agile manner is crucial for keeping wellbeing high, she says: “Employers need to be mindful that the impact of the pandemic will not be over when restrictions are no longer in place.”
Avoiding issues of implementation
There are pitfalls associated with the adoption of agile practices in a company’s HR function, however. While responding to change in an agile way, rather than following a plan, is important when considering workers’ wellbeing, for example, some guidelines and procedures are necessary for when issues arise. And, ultimately, every organisation is measured by its outcome.
“Having this idea of really understanding what agile means and feeling it – and trying to adopt its mindset – is important,” says Rasmussen. But “if you think of agile only from a methodological perspective, that’s a risk”.
Instigating a more agile wellbeing strategy must therefore start at the top, she says. Leaders need to feel empowered to make a change and require training on how to develop an agile approach, and this will then trickle down to the rest of the workforce. “Let your leaders reach out to their people and reap the benefits,” she says.
So, as employees return to physical workspaces and confront a new, post-pandemic world of employment, companies should seize the moment to adopt a more agile way of working that will benefit not only employees’ wellbeing but the business as a whole, says Allen. “Now is not the time to sit still.”