What’s the difference between agile working and flexible working? Aren’t they the same? There is actually a significant difference, which has caused confusion among the best of us.

The good news is that companies are getting a better understanding of what these mean, and many organisations have adopted flexible and agile approaches to transform business operations. The ONS reports that 24% of businesses intend to use increased working from home as a permanent business model going forward. The State of Agile 2021 report shows that 94% of organisations are using agile techniques. While the differences are better understood, how they combine to complement one another could still be an elusive concept.

In this article, we’ll clarify what makes each approach stand out. We’ll consider how a combination of the two can boost morale and productivity, and help businesses retain talent and stay competitive.

What is agile working, and how is it different from flexible working?

You could describe flexible working as an enabler of employee needs. This reduces the concept down to its basic properties, so it’s far better to drill down into the components that make it work. The crucial ingredients of a flexible organisation, for example, provide its employees with flexible hours, flexible working locations, job-sharing opportunities and more. You can explore these points in more detail in this CIPD article on flexible working practices.

Agile working, on the other hand, is based on a method of working rather than a type of working. The foundation of an agile approach exists around project management and the ability to empower small teams to quickly and easily innovate and adapt. If flexible working is employee-based, agile working is task-based. The Agile Organisation describes agile working as ‘bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task.’

Who benefits from flexible and agile working?

Some might say flexible working is employee-centric, while agile is employer-centric, but that is not the case. The two have the potential to formidably combine. Detractors may point to flexible working as being conceptually loose, which may cause reduced expectations of productivity, and enable too much freedom to those who might take advantage. This is where adopting an agile working approach could provide impactful benefits.

Hand in hand, the two working approaches could combine to empower an organisation and its workforce: speeding them up and making them adaptable to change. In the process, you could see improvements around communication, collaboration, accuracy and speed. A team-focused strategy could increase measurable productivity and improve cross-departmental alignment, all while ensuring employees enjoy the benefits of flexible working.

How does agile working actually work?

Agile working places an emphasis on building small teams that monitor and regulate ongoing tasks. Whether these teams are working remotely or not, the concept remains strong because each individual has a role to play in the scrum team. The end game is the outcome of goals the scrum has driven towards. Managers who feel disconnected from employees may find it easier to trust in a system that relies on collaboration rather than isolation, and self-governance of project tasks.

The benefits of agile working include regular workflow reviews and post-assessments. Scrum teams carefully plan everything, set small iterative goals, review often, and then do it all over again. This is quite an effective way of working, with a 64% success rate among companies that have adopted agile methodology.

Should I adopt agile working, and will it work with flexible workers?

Agile working is most commonly associated with software development, yet this is a methodology that any department can benefit from. Imagine an agile HR team or sales team, for instance. And because you’re a flexible organisation, you enjoy the benefits of fewer business overheads while increasing productivity and focus. The scrum team that has to commute many miles to an office each day is a tired one, and that travel time is better spent planning that day’s goals and potential outcomes.

Is it worth doing as a business? After adopting agile, companies have experienced an average 60% growth in revenue and profit. If you envision resistance to getting an agile transformation underway, you can keep in mind that a recent survey by Cisco found that 45% of Gen Y employees would accept a lower-paying job if they got more flexibility on device choice and mobility.

Can’t we simply be a flexible organisation and have done with it?

Of course, being a flexible organisation is fantastic! You already recognise the obvious benefits of helping your employees strike a healthy balance between work and living a good life. They experience less stress, have more money in their pockets thanks to not commuting as much, see family more, and perhaps drink better coffee than the office vending machine provides. These are palpable benefits, yet agile could add even more.

Agile working could help employees focus on goals, tasks and outcomes. They could rejuvenate skills they forgot they had, feel the energy of progress as a team, and experience mental rewards more often. Why would a business not want to introduce agile to a flexible organisation?

The alternative is to carry on regardless and risk being uncompetitive. If the business doesn’t grow, employees may notice, which could eat into morale. You may see an increase in unhappiness and work-related stress among staff. Their flexible working arrangements may come to be seen as isolating, and you may find laziness creeps in, affecting productivity. Being too rigid and stuck in your ways does not lead to innovation and growth. The alternative makes for refreshing reading, and is courtesy of the Microsoft Work Trend Index, which found that 84% of surveyed staff in the UK says they are ‘as productive or even more productive compared to a year ago, which is higher than the global average of 81%’.

While there are many differences between agile and flexible working, at their core, they combine to be powerful enablers of change. In nurturing an environment of learning, innovation, energy and happiness, you may see many benefits. You could increase measurable productivity, stand a better chance of retaining talented people, enlarge the talent pool you can draw from, help people find a work-life balance that suits them, and remain competitive as an innovative organisation.

Finally, by combining new working practices, you achieve lasting cultural change. And this may be one of the most significant rewards of all.