What is an agile workforce and how to build one

What is an agile workforce and how to build one

The need for more agility has been a long time coming. But recent events like COVID, the Great Resignation, inflation, and geopolitical tensions have all forced companies to prioritize agility in the face of uncertainty — even more so now as disruption becomes commonplace. 

But what does it mean to have an agile workforce? And how can organizations ensure they're setting up their workforce to pivot rapidly when presented with the latest challenge? This article aims to examine agile workforces in more detail, analyzing what they are, their benefits, and how to build one. 

What is an Agile Workforce? 

An agile workforce is one that is fluid, resilient, dynamic, and adaptable. It's composed of a team of people who can pivot and adapt to evolving circumstances quickly and efficiently. This type of team has the capacity for rapid learning, creative problem-solving, and effective collaboration with cross-functional teams. 

Individuals within the agile workforce model are also focused on teamwork, have strong communication skills, and are willing to learn from mistakes. Another aspect of an agile workforce that is unique is its makeup. 

Because flexibility is a core requirement of an agile workforce, the makeup can be composed of full-time employees and independent workers like freelancers, contractors, and consultants.  

This type of workforce is a far cry from traditional ways of working. Historically, employees had set roles and expectations — but agile workforces require employees to constantly learn, grow, and tackle novel challenges.

As McKinsey comments, “In essence, agility at an enterprise level means moving strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward a new operating model. It achieves all this by rebuilding an organization around hundreds of self-steering, high-performing teams (supported by a stable backbone) and by changing the organizational culture.”

The Importance of an Agile Workforce Today

Before current market dynamics, business leaders were more concerned about employee numbers and the bottom line rather than building flexible workforces. Because the marketplace was more static, there was little need for developing teams with an agile mindset. 

But as technological advancements disrupted the way we operate and the world became more interconnected, companies had to rethink how their business models operated in this constantly changing landscape. The pandemic further exacerbated this as companies had to quickly adapt and adopt new technologies to support a remote workforce. 

With the pace of change expected to accelerate, a business's ability to attain agility will become a key differentiating factor. Companies that can pivot and adapt in the face of increasing volatility and ambiguity will be better positioned to maintain their competitive advantage. 

Yet there are several benefits to attaining workforce agility than just responding quickly. In fact, there are four additional  benefits of this approach, such as: 

1. Driving Innovation at Scale

Agile workforces promote collaboration, with employees from separate parts of the organization regularly sharing ideas. This, in turn, boosts innovation. According to Fujitsu, “... an agile workforce can react to change at speed, come up with innovative solutions, and drive new business growth.”

Research backs this up. Chiara Franco and Fabio Landini, authors of ‘Organizational drivers of innovation: The role of workforce agility,’ state, “In the very complex, turbulent, and challenging environment in which both small and big firms have to compete, the importance of being ready to react to manifold changes is crucial to raise the rate of innovation.” Put simply, “Establishments with higher workforce agility are more likely to innovate.”

2. Improving Efficiency and Productivity

As Harvard Business Review (HBR) comments, “Agile methods can accelerate product development and process improvements.” But why is this?

Agile workforces are always looking for ways to improve — whether on an individual basis (i.e., upskilling) or on a team-wide basis (i.e., utilizing new processes). They’re never content to stick with the status quo, meaning they always discover more efficient ways to operate. 

3. Accelerating Speed to Market 

Agile workforces are more efficient and productive, which accelerates their speed to market. Employees are constantly experimenting and cross-pollinating. They bounce from one team to the next, sharing ideas on how to innovate — and working out how to bring their products to market as quickly and successfully as possible.  

4. Lowering Talent Acquisition Costs 

Agile workforces promote upskilling and internal mobility, meaning they retain more employees and spend less on talent acquisition. HBR found that 88% of employees want to work for organizations with the tools in place to enable agile learning. In other words, to support constant upskilling. 

But that's not the only way an agile workforce enables more cost savings. As mentioned earlier, agile workforces can be hybrid workforces composed of full-time employees and independent contractors. These independent contractors can be onboarded on demand to scale a team without going through the process of hiring a full-time employee. 

More importantly, you can also leverage independent talent to upskill your current workforce — enabling you to fill an immediate position much faster while also obtaining long-term gains. 

3 Ways to Make Your Workforce More Agile

An agile workforce is highly valuable In today's fast-paced business environment. It allows your organization to respond quickly to market shifts and makes it easier to keep up with evolving customer needs and other challenges in real time. So how can you make your workforce more agile? Here are three ways to build a more agile workforce. 

1. Consider Adopting a Project-Based Approach 

Agile organizations take a project-based lens to organize work. Teams are then built around these short- to medium-term initiatives. Employees don't handle the same tasks for the same team repeatedly. Instead, managers build cross-functional teams to achieve the business's top priorities. Talent is deployed where it's most needed at that time. To better understand the typical team structure in an agile organization, check out this blog

2. Consider Leveraging Independent Talent 

Taking the time to hire a full-time employee or extending your team's bandwidth to meet an increase in demand may not be a viable approach. A way to work around this is to supplement your teams with independent talent, or experts as we call them, at Graphite. 

Independent talent is well suited for the project-based work model. As subject matter experts, they can help organizations quickly address an immediate need for a specific skill or to execute a particular initiative. But outside of obtaining a more cost-effective way of scaling your team, you can also leverage the expertise of these experts to upskill your workforce.

3. Consider Upskilling Your Current Workforce 

One of the main benefits of an agile workforce for employees is the ability to learn new skills and perfect existing ones. Upskilling your current workforce is a great way to develop the skills your business needs and is also great for retaining top talent. 

But it's also time-consuming — even more so when you consider how quickly the market changes, which is why it's advised to combine upskilling with the other two approaches to develop a comprehensive talent strategy. 

What Does an Agile Workforce Look Like in Practice?

Agile workforces make the most out of the employees at their disposal — but if they lack specific expertise, they don't hesitate to onboard an external specialist if needed. The goal is less on individual merits and how a team can succeed to meet the greater business objectives. 

An example of an agile workforce in practice can be evidenced by this global pharmaceutical company, which partnered with Graphite to attain the financial expertise missing from its supply chain transformation team. 

Another example is the use of an ex-Mckinsey project manager to create one technical environment after this Fortune 500 company underwent a recent acquisition of an e-commerce company. There are plenty more stories you can explore here

Building a More Agile Workforce 

Ultimately, developing a more agile mindset will be the key to succeeding in the future of work. This means fostering a culture of collaboration, talent sharing, community, agile project management practices, and empowering employees. Likewise, this requires you to also take a more proactive approach to your strategic workforce plans. 

Companies need to be able to better forecast and predict what lies ahead to make the necessary changes to their workforce to respond to change. Investing in technology and leveraging alternative talent sources will be crucial to attaining business agility. 

If you’re interested in exploring how to be more proactive and facilitate the move toward a more agile workforce, download your copy of our strategic workforce planning guide to learn more.

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