How to maximize workforce performance by unlocking agility

Three steps to create more dynamic ways of working

By Maya Finkelstein

As more space grows between us and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few common themes begin to emerge: uncertainty, ingenuity, and agility. Uncertainty, because tried-and-true responses to crises no longer applied. Ingenuity, because the organizations and people most willing to accept new ways of working made the best out of a terrible situation. Agility, because to respond quickly is to accept that time wasted is time that could have been spent enacting new and ingenious ways of work, adapted to an uncertain world.

While businesses have historically prioritized scalable efficiency, focusing on stable growth and predictable outcomes, outside circumstances have made those same organizations reconsider their calculations. As constant disruption becomes the new norm, those that embraced more dynamic ways of working could meet new challenges head-on—setting the tone instead of being backed into a corner.

Leaders recognize the need and benefits of an agile workforce, but few understand how much of a game-changer this mindset shift is.

What is workforce agility?

Workforce agility describes an organization’s ability to shift priorities or adjust operational procedures to better match the realities and circumstances at hand. Until recently, large companies relied on job descriptions, hierarchies, and institutional experience to meet rising challenges.

Agile organizations embrace change and prepare themselves for the inevitable reshuffling of priorities by creating the frameworks of adaptability required to respond to sudden landscape shifts. They’re swift in assessing the needs of the marketplace and empower their talent to tackle challenges directly. To be agile is to be future-ready; the challenge is implementing these exciting new methodologies in a way that does not disrupt the core functions of the business.

Make no mistake: changing a company’s organizational structure to unlock agility is a foundational shift in the way company leaders envision their workforce. But the benefits—open communication, breakdowns of information silos, personal (and business) growth mindsets, and continuous skills development—outweigh the concerns of making such a change.

Why is workforce agility so important right now?

Companies that have embraced workforce agility have seen an immediate positive impact on their operations. Unilever, after embracing workforce agility and implementing a talent marketplace, saw a 41% improvement in overall productivity through unlocking 500,000 hours of work towards more than 3,000 business-critical projects in the first few months of embracing agility.

Unilever CEO Alan Jope, in summarizing the company’s experience with focusing on workforce agility, says that the initiatives are “…allowing (Unilever) to redeploy both temporary and permanent resources to support strategic priorities.”

Though unlocking agility may not have been the most logical goal in the past, current circumstances prove that agility is a non-negotiable trait for any company looking to thrive despite unprecedented disruption.

As talent shortages shift focus onto internal skills and mobility, many leaders are left wondering how they’ll meet demands. A survey from the Institute for Corporate Productivity shows that less than one-third of employers believe their company possesses the skills needed to advance their business strategies over the next 1 to 3 years. Even fewer (18%) believe they are either “very highly effective” or “highly effective” at analyzing the gaps that exist between their companies’ current skills and what will be necessary for the future.

To create an agile workforce is to embrace uncertainty through preparation. As uncertainties mount, from talent shortages and retention issues to evolving consumer demands and supply chain disruptions, companies that value and emphasize the innate dynamic capability of their workforce will be better prepared for the unknowable future.

3 benefits that help agile businesses outperform the competition

Given the uncertainty that organizations currently face, the benefits of embracing an agile workforce are becoming more pronounced.

#1. Better employee retention and engagement rates
When organizations embrace agility and move to a project- and task-based approach, employees have more opportunities to develop skills internally that better meet the needs of the organization. A Deloitte study shows that it takes roughly two years for an external hire to gain insight into an organization equivalent to that of an internal hire, and the odds that needs will change within that period are fairly high.

#2. Superior productivity
Agile enterprises move faster, finding solutions to new problems through utilizing the talent that resides in-house. Old hierarchies of work often silo knowledge and talent apart from each other, causing delays and unnecessary disruptions to objectives.

Breaking down conventional jobs into projects and gigs allows talent to be deployed near-instantaneously, without the months-long process of onboarding specific external hires.

#3. Greater innovation
Moving from hierarchies to flatter, networked teams encourages team members to contribute directly. An agile organization can take a good idea from anywhere in the company and put it to use since it’s no longer hidden behind unnecessary vertical work structures that diminish the value of shared experience.

How to maximize agility with a talent marketplace

The benefits of agility in traditional company settings are clear, but what can still be hazy for leaders is how to implement these changes. One of the most beneficial methods is by implementing a talent marketplace, which has the capability of organizing, harmonizing, and deploying skills within a company.

Talent marketplaces dynamically align employees to projects and gigs—or even full-time roles—that match their skills and ambitions. No longer tied to a job description, workers are empowered to meet challenges as they come.

For employers, talent marketplaces provide a rich data layer that grants fuller insights into the complete skills repertoire of the company to better understand capabilities, current skills gaps, and even future knowledge gaps.

To be agile is to be ready for anything the world throws at organizations.

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