The Unintended Consequences of Agile Working

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IzzyWebsiteThe advancements in technology, paired with globalisation have promoted a trend towards agile working, with workers free to work at a time and location which suits them. In the changing world of work, there is a growing trend for employees to work flexibly and not be required to be tied to their desks in traditional working patterns, with 70% of people globally working remotely at least once a week [1]. There are multiple organisational benefits to agile working, including increased productivity, autonomy and the promotion of work-life balance for employees.

Recently, Microsoft Japan implemented a 4 day working week to much success. Offering its 2,300 employees a variety of agile working styles, Microsoft Japan launched a pilot programme aiming to increase productivity and morale, with a goal to realise the same results with 20% fewer weekly hours[2]. The results appeared to be highly positive: a 40% rise in productivity, happier workers and a decline in days taken off. However, there are often unintended consequences of agile working which organisations should consider in their approach. The introduction of the shorter week came with the introduction of ‘strict new rules’, with managers being ‘heavy handed’ in their implementation, including employees being fined for taking too long on work-related matters.

Taking these dynamics into consideration, the pressure to output the same amount, or the resulting 40% rise in productivity in Microsoft’s case, in a shorter amount of time could have a detrimental effect upon employees wellbeing and long term efficiency.

Organisations such as Tiggertrap and the Los Angeles Times have also suffered unintended consequences when introducing an unlimited vacation policy. On the face of it, this seems like a positive idea which promotes high levels of rejuvenation, empowerment and autonomy. However, in practice often these policies push people to always be ‘on’ and connected, with a Glassdoor survey showing that 61% of workers admit to working despite being on vacation[3].

In many cases, one of the main disadvantages associated with unlimited vacation policies is that often employees end up taking less time off. Tiggertrap scrapped their unlimited vacation policy after results found that employees had reduced their average number of holiday taken from 28 days to 15. Factors such as unspoken expectations and nobody wanting to be the person who takes the most time off, contribute to spiralling behaviour in which employees take even less holiday than before. Adding to this, the advancement in technology has enabled new ways of working, but has also promoted the growth of an ‘always on’ culture, in which there are potential stresses of constantly being connected to work and never truly switching off.

So, after this reflection of the disadvantages of a more agile approach to working arrangements, why should organisations still consider this strategy as their most future-proofed option?

In the changing world of work, organisations need to adapt their traditional approaches to ways of working in order to attract and retain the best talent. By offering a wider menu of options of working hours, organisations should be able to attract a broader range of people and maintain a stronger talent pipeline. In confronting the unintended consequences, it is crucial that organisations develop policies that will not just allow employees to work flexibly or have time off, but encourage them to do so. If the aim of the policy is to enhance a less frenzied working environment, with reduced burnout and higher productivity, organisations need to tackle the culture in which these policies sit and support individual behaviour that does not promote employees to be ‘always on’ and constantly connected. To approach this, organisations could benefit from considering a more tailored approach, aiming to promote a culture which empowers their employees ‘to communicate when they need time to disconnect’, rather than rolling out a one-size-fits-all policy[4].


[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/30/70-percent-of-people-globally-work-remotely-at-least-once-a-week-iwg-study.html

2 Kelly, J. (2019). Microsoft Japan Launched A Four-Day Workweek To Much Success: Is This The Key To Attracting Talent In The Tight U.S. Job Market?. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2019/11/05/microsoft-japan-launched-a-four-day-week-work-to-much-success-is-this-the-answer-to-attract-talent-in-the-tight-us-job-market/#4863cf6759ff  [Accessed 21 Nov. 2019].

3 Unlimited Vacation Time Policy (2016), Hot Spots Movement. Available at: http://hotspotscdn.blob.core.windows.net/files/1247/unlimited-vacation-time-case-study-160915.pdf [Accessed 21st. Nov. 2019]

4 Future of HR Report (2016), Hot Spots Movement, Available at http://hotspotscdn.blob.core.windows.net/files/1267/future-of-hr-report-final.pdf

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