Hybrid, agile and flexible working – what’s the difference?
The terms ‘hybrid’, ‘agile’ and ‘flexible’ are some of the most common in the industry, but they are often misused. What do they really mean? Are they subjective, meaning different things to different people, or are there defining characteristics of each?
We asked Craig Murray (Strategy and Design Director, TSK), Christina Belkacem (Senior Designer, TSK) and Dan Pilling (Workplace Consultant, TSK) what hybrid, agile and flexible working mean to them.
Flexible working has been described as a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home. But what do our experts think?
Traditionally, flexible working gave some employees the opportunity to work more flexibly in terms of work hours, or between places of work. It was more of an employee contract permission where you could accrue flexible time or work compressed hours to gain a level of discretion.
Flexible working is about the when. Since the pandemic, more people are now asking, ‘When do I work most effectively?’ Employees can fit work around their lifestyles, rather than the other way around. Some organisations are now giving their people total freedom, allowing staff to choose their own work patterns – it doesn’t necessarily have to be between 9am and 5pm.
Flexible working should give you the choice in when, where and how you want to work.
Flexible working is more to do with HR policies and protocols around contracted hours. So, flexible working essentially looks at the typical 9-to-5 just working day and allows you to edit your time. Many employees can now choose their working hours, allowing them to balance both work and home commitments.
Agile means the ability to move quickly and easily, and agile working has been described as simply an extension of that. It’s having a variety of work settings from which employees have the freedom to choose from, depending on which is most appropriate for what they need to achieve. Here or experts elaborate further:
A few years ago, people would have seen agile working as a development of flexible working. It allowed greater autonomy in terms of where and how you work – not just around your contract. Agile working formalised the connection between the home and the office in a different way, and we began using technology to drive new levels of efficiency. So, you might start to work to an 8:10 ratio (10 people using 8 workstations).
In terms of design, agile working is about the ‘what with’. For example, we can use agile furniture to support hybrid working. If employees predominantly use the office for meetings and collaborative work, we will create more spaces to support those activities. We are seeing many manufacturers designing lightweight furniture on wheels to create multi-functional spaces. That might be TVs, writable whiteboards or even walls on wheels! This means we don’t have wasted empty boardrooms – employees can create meeting spaces by clustering furniture together. We can build in technology to help support this way of working.
However, open-plan offices like these might cause new issues such as noise pollution. We can use acoustic treatments on the ceiling or acoustic curtains to make those spaces quieter. It’s all about designing in spaces that have flexible uses.
Initially, agile working described people working in a mobile fashion both in the office and beyond walls. The term became negatively associated with ‘hot desking’, perceived by many as an office game of musical chairs.
Now, we use the word ‘agility’ to describe both organisational and individual agility. I think that’s a more mature way to use it. It’s not just a label for a certain type of office or a certain type of workplace transformation programme.
Individual agility relates to your job role. It’s a way to describe how mobile you are from an individual perspective and can be defined by how you like to work, or the kind of work you do. As a roaming consultant, my external agility is quite high as I go to different locations to work. When I come to the office, my internal agility is relatively low as I usually stay at a computer and I’m quite fixed in terms of what I need to do.
Organisational agility is that same principle but on a macro level. It comes down to how responsive you can be as a business. That might involve how easy it is to reconfigure space or accommodate a team of 20 people. It could be how ready you are to respond to changes in the market. It’s all about having responsive set-ups and processes to accommodate change.
It has been suggested that hybrid working is a type of flexible working where an employee splits their time between the workplace and working remotely. But is it as simple as that?
I think most people see hybrid working as a choice between the office and home, forced by Covid. Hybrid has therefore taken on a modern language to most people. It’s a choice of place.
The office is no longer a place you go to Monday to Friday, sitting at the same desk 9am–5pm. Hybrid working gives people autonomy around place and time. When you come to the office, you have a high-quality and efficient environment that supports both work and your wellbeing.
A year ago, people would say that hybrid working allowed you to do quiet work at home and collaborative work at the office. The truth is, no one will collaborate for seven hours a day. You will need to go away and get a coffee or do some quiet work during the working day. When designing offices, we need to think about the complexity of interaction, place, and work activities.
For me, hybrid working is all about how and where we work. It gives people the opportunity to work from a variety of locations, including the office, home, cafes, wherever suits.
This impacts how we design offices. If there are fewer people in the office at any one time, we might reduce the number of desks and create more collaboration zones for example. We are designing the office to be a destination and somewhere you go to carry out specific tasks rather than somewhere you have to be every day.
In terms of my understanding, hybrid is a descriptor of being halfway between one thing and another. In the context of this moment, you could work full time at home, full time in the office, or a hybrid of the two.
I’ve heard people describe an office as a hybrid office, but I’m not overly convinced that the office is hybrid. The very nature of an office is that it’s static. However, an office can be editable and changeable to accommodate a flexible future and support hybrid-working methods. We need to be careful about how we use these words so we don’t baffle people!
We thought we’d throw in another one for good measure. WeWork describes activity-based working as a work style that allows employees to choose from a variety of settings according to the nature of what they are doing, combined with a workplace experience that empowers them to use those spaces throughout the day. We asked our experts to expand on this:
Activity-based working (ABW) comes hand in hand with agile working. It considers the elements within the office and how they can support people to undertake activities to a high level. So, rather than just having a desk and a chair, you create a number of settings to facilitate specific tasks.
ABW was then abridged with agile working, drawing on the attributes of agile development methodology (essentially the principle of moving around a space to carry out your work) – for example, scrums, huddles and methods of working that are more project-orientated.
Activity-based working is all about creating settings that are designed to support the tasks you’re doing. So, you might need focus rooms for quiet independent work or you might need rounded collaboration tables for meetings and communication.
In addition to agile methodology (moving around a space to work) is activity-based working. So, as you’re moving around and being agile, you would move to alternative settings that best suit the activity you’re carrying out. That might be a quiet space if you need to do reading, or a team space for collaborative work. It’s essentially a filter you use to choose the best location to suit the task you’re doing.
Workplace [R]Evolution: Issue 3
With many organisations now viewing hybrid working as a competitive advantage, it’s more important than ever to engage with people, to guide workplace decisions.
In this third issue of the Workplace [R]Evolution, we’re bringing you the latest data, exploring how to lead with employee experience and sharing the latest examples of hybrid workplaces.