How HR Can Help Create an Agile Future at Work

Agile, nimble, and resilient are words that describe the people you want to hire, retain, and develop in the future at your company. They exemplify the organizational cultures that will thrive in times of rapidly changing markets, customers, products, delivery systems, and services.

These words also define you if you value your career and your contribution to the competitiveness and success of your organization.

But what is an agile organization? And what is the responsibility of the Human Resources department to help build an agile company?

What Is an Agile Organization?
An agile, or change-ready organization, is an organization that can quickly adapt to changing circumstances; it is ready for anything. It can respond instantaneously to changing customer demands. The agile organization innovates rapidly and immediately tailors products and services to new customer needs.

This ability to change doesn’t mean that no structure is necessary—on the contrary, an agile business needs to be stable. The Harvard Business Review explains that an agile workforce needs to have a sharp focus, especially during times of major disruption. Leaders have to set and teach the top priorities and keep the company focused on those.1 Without the focus, change can cause chaos.

The recent pandemic has forced businesses into agility—they needed to either adapt or shut down. Here are some examples of how companies demonstrated readiness to change.

Examples of Agility in Business
One of the positive aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is that companies have risen to the occasion. Numerous alcohol distilleries switched—almost overnight—from making drinking alcohol to hand sanitizer. This is true agility in action. They didn’t shut down and spend months drawing up new business plans. They didn’t hire a consultant to come in and evaluate if this was a good decision. They said, “We need hand sanitizer,” and then quickly made the shift.2

Automakers jumped in to make ventilators but perhaps had a more daunting task than distilleries.

Making ventilators when you used to make cars is a more significant paradigm shift than switching from alcohol to sanitizers. This suggests that willingness is only part of the requirements for agility.

Referring back to the Harvard paper, note that the authors emphasized a strong focus on organizations seeking agility. Changing the type of alcohol is agile and allows alcohol distilleries to remain focused without dramatically altering their operations. Changing from cars to ventilators, however, not only requires agility, but a complete change in focus and is much more difficult to execute.

Most of the time, agile businesses don’t have to rapidly switch their product lines, but the ability to change is critical. The rise of Netflix over Blockbuster is an example of how agility made a business, while the lack of willingness to change destroyed another one. Netflix saw something that customers hated—late fees—and devised a model to fix that problem. Blockbuster didn’t even know that it was a problem until Netflix had a firm hold on the market. They could not respond quickly enough.4

Multiple layers of management that separate people from information, customers, and the ability to make knowledgeable decisions won’t work in your agile future. Neither will people who want to do one job, make limited decisions, take no risks, and pass each challenge to their supervisor.

As a manager, every time you make a decision that could be made by someone who works more closely on the situation, you deprive that person of the opportunity to grow. As a result, you hinder employee empowerment.

In an agile environment, direction, and focus is provided by leaders who drive and communicate the organization’s strategic vision throughout the workplace—daily, incessantly, and consistently. People internalize this vision and perform their work to maximize their potential and attainment.

Agility in Human Resources
Is your business agile? If not, how can Human Resources help the company reach an agile state? The HR department offers a lot of services that it must perform—hiring, paperwork, reporting, employee development, and so forth, but an agile HR function adapts as the company needs change.

Being agile, of course, is not just about using the right terminology. HR managers can talk about responsibility and collaboration. But, if they cannot make adjustments and work with teams to create a real transformation, they’re not developing a genuinely flexible and change-driven organization.

A simple example is the switch from paper documents to online forms. HR still needs to collect paperwork to pay employees, keep accurate records, and fulfill government obligations, but an agile department changes how it does paperwork, policies, and procedures as the company evolves.

How HR Can Help Other Departments Become Agile
The HR function’s contribution to the hiring and development of agile, nimble, and resilient people is critical. Human Resources can actually design or administer several organizational systems that contribute to agility and can benefit other departments in the process. These include:

  • Creating selection, testing, and hiring criteria that identify diverse, resilient, nimble people
  • Providing orientation that emphasizes the role’s vision and expectation for agility
  • Assisting and coaching leaders to communicate the vision, and designing a work environment that removes barriers, de-emphasizes hierarchical control, emphasizes empowerment, and puts people directly into contact with customers and suppliers
  • Creating flexible job descriptions that change regularly to meet organization needs
  • Consider using a job plan approach, so employees are in charge of monitoring their core job functions and goals
  • Providing opportunities for people to work on cross-functional, even virtual teams that solve a problem or approach a new opportunity
  • Creating an environment in which diverse ideas, training, and education that develop individual capacity and reading are the norm
  • Holding people accountable for their results, and ensuring there are consequences for met and unmet goals
  • Pushing decision-making down, across, and throughout the organization, so people are not waiting for decisions before taking action
  • Designing a feedback system that provides ongoing, daily feedback, so people always know how they are doing
  • Invest the time to create a competency-based, individually planned and negotiated, results-based performance feedback system
  • Eliminate the traditional performance review
  • Rewarding people who produce results that have a wide-ranging impact on the organization
  • Reward results and impact, not longevity or seniority
  • Rewarding at least quarterly
  • Consider sharing profits
  • Basing promotions on contribution and impact
  • Encouraging intelligent risk-taking and open discussion, and even some conflict over diverse ideas and viewpoints
  • Avoid groupthink to maintain relationships
  • Coaching managers to handle their own people issues, instead of leaving it to HR to solve
  • HR builds the manager’s capabilities and thus that of the organization as a whole