Embracing the irrational

The current trend towards agile working is very much a product of its time, both required and facilitated by dramatic developments in technology and a fundamental shift in the type of work undertaken by many businesses. So what could a 1957 paper about the acceptance of new ideas among farm people, written by two agricultural researchers from the United States of America, possibly contribute to the debate?

More than you might think. The paper contained the germ of a theory around the diffusion of ideas, which was developed and popularised by the sociologist Everett Rogers in his 1962 Diffusion of Innovations. It proposed a model for the adoption of new technologies; a bell-curve segmented into Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards.

The model has been widely accepted and gives shape and structure to what our experience shows us to be true: that people respond to innovation at different rates. For all sorts of reasons – habit, character, prior experience, peer pressure, and a raft of other behavioural biases – our reaction to change is not uniform. And this is a crucial consideration in the adoption of agile working.

A 2017 Leesman study revealed that employees’ reaction to the introduction of agile working closely follows Rogers’ model. It identified four types of office worker:

1. The Camper – prefers to work at their personal workstation
2. The Timid Traveller – ventures away from their desk from time to time
3. The Intrepid Explorer – makes good use of other work settings in the office
4. The True Transient – rarely seen at a single workstation

Addressing the people challenge

The Leesman data is important because it highlights the significance of the people element of the agile working challenge. The shape of the bell-curve varies between different businesses, influenced by factors including the average age of employees, the complexity of the tasks they undertake, and the norms of the industry sector they operate in. And a significant weighting towards Campers and Timid Travellers should not discourage a business from implementing agile working. But an awareness of the different attitudes among your employees is vital.

Because, although creating an agile working environment is primarily task-driven rather than people-driven, an agile solution worked out by plugging floorplans and furniture dimensions into CAD and implemented with no consideration for the habits and preferences of the people in the business is an agile solution doomed to failure.

Avoid the pitfalls

So if you’re considering going agile, here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Do your research

As well as gathering information on business requirements and potential furniture and tech solutions, invest time in understanding how your employees feel about the change. Creating an attitudinal segmentation at the outset could help you foresee and resolve problems before they arise. Read more about the benefits of profiling your team here.

2. More carrot, less stick

Your True Transients will probably embrace the new environment from day one without much encouragement, and your Intrepid Explorers won’t be far behind. But your Timid Travellers and Campers will take longer to adjust. Cajole, don’t criticise. Explain the benefits – for them and for the business.

Demonstrate how the new settings work. Empower them to take advantage of their new resources. Listen to their concerns. And lead by example.

3. Hold your nerve

Kinnarps recently surveyed 5,300 employees of over 60 client businesses across Europe in order to better understand agile working from an employee point of view. One of the most striking findings was that, though the level of employee satisfaction increased over a 12-month period, satisfaction at the 6-month point had often dropped. In short, it got worse before it got better. So if the immediate response to your new agile environment is less than glowing, don’t panic! As your employees adjust to the change, the benefits will become clear.

Delve deeper into our research findings in Agile Working: from paper to practice