What HR Can Do to Make Managers and Teams More Agile

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Jan 15, 2020

Across the world, employees are getting fed up with the “old” management style – a boss issuing orders and employees blindly following them. In a recent survey, the vast majority of employees stated that they want to be consulted in decision-making, to take more responsibility at work and to work for managers who coach and inspire them.

This emerging demand from workers fits in with a change to more agile ways of working that we are seeing in many organizations today. Agile organizations emphasize innovation, speed of decision-making and delivering value for customers. Empowering and engaging employees is a major way of delivering on these.

What does this mean for human resources professionals? How can they respond to the challenges of making the change to “agile” that both employees and organizations are looking for?

Instead of being on the back foot, HR professionals should see themselves as leading the change, helping to shift the culture of the organization and make it more customer-centric and nimble. Here are three ways HR can play a key role:

1. Create a collaborative culture internationally

The survey, which was carried out in the US, the UK and the DACH region of Europe, showed that around three quarters of employees across all of the regions would prefer a more collaborative working environment (specifically, 74% in the US and Germany and 73% in the UK). That means a flatter structure where people work together in teams instead of showing up and waiting to be told what to do by the person above you in the chain of command. How can the tools of workforce management support this? One recent example comes from Onepoint, which has reduced the levels in its global consulting firm to three: associates, leaders and partners, who work together in communities across the organization.

Creating a collaborative culture can extend across national and international organizations. In one of my previous companies, we decided to start an offshore center in Pune, India. We were told we should expect higher than average levels of attrition. Indeed, such was the attrition problems that we heard some companies ran duplicate development teams working on the same projects so they could cover more easily when someone left from the main team. The very term offshore conjures up some sort of “special case” and typically, organizations pass work down from their onshore offices to be completed remotely.

We decided that instead we would run it as if it was a local office with the same agile working practices and culture. We never called it offshore and we worked in partnership, not in a hierarchical relationship. We ended up having less average attrition than we did in the UK and a loyal and passionate team.

2. Put employees in a leading role, making decisions and taking responsibility

The digital workplace is changing. In the last century, people often worked under the close supervision of managers. But in agile organizations, people work in cross-functional teams, closer to the customer. Rather than pushing information up the hierarchy and waiting for a decision to be made, the people on the ground are in more of a leading role, and work in a more autonomous way.

That is increasingly the expectation of new generations coming into the workforce, as our survey confirmed. Seven out of ten employees stated they would like to take more responsibility at work (72% in the US and 70% in Germany). Only around a quarter of respondents don’t want this. Almost half of employees even believe they would do their work better without input from their manager; another quarter say they would do it just as well.

But the survey showed that a significant minority of managers may not be comfortable with this trend. Around a third of respondents complained their managers micromanage them, or don’t give them credit for their work, or that they find it difficult to be honest with each other. These managers are failing to meet the expectations of employees. That may cause potential issues with hiring and retention. Most people also said that their manager would be a big factor in whether they decide to look for another job – and in these days of review sites, people can easily share their dissatisfaction with other potential recruits.

Employees say they value managers who can coach and motivate people. Sometimes people are promoted into management simply because they are very good at their job, but they may not have much experience or training in how to manage people. HR can play a role here in coaching the coaches.

Giving feedback in a constructive way is key to good coaching. In many organizations, performance evaluation is targeted on the employees, but why not gather feedback from the teams on how their managers are performing?

Shifting performance evaluation towards teams and away from individuals can also help. Some companies are trying out group incentives. Other organizations try to identify which teams are working best together, innovating effectively and creating successful propositions.

3. Support employees to develop their skills – take a forward looking view of recruitment

In the survey, only around half of employees felt their boss or manager is invested in their career goals and aspirations. There was some regional variation: In the UK, fewer than half (46%) felt that their boss or manager is invested in their career growth and aspirations, and in the US, significantly more (57%) felt their boss is in their corner when it comes to career goals.

In one of my previous companies, we set the expectation that people would add a line to their resume each year. That was great for their development and it also kept us on our toes, as we realized that if we didn’t provide opportunities for people to grow and develop, they would leave.

Training used to be a time-consuming affair, often involving travel to an off-site location where the training itself could be more or less relevant to you as an individual. I remember one particular course where the part that was most relevant to our team was delivered at the end of a three-day course, on a Friday afternoon when everyone wanted to leave early to beat the traffic.

Now it is much easier to deliver the right training to people at the right time. They can take modules in small chunks over time and acquire badges to show what skills they have been working on. AI can help to nudge people towards relevant training at the right time.

Recruitment can also benefit from an agile approach. Instead of working in silos according to rigid job descriptions, HR professionals can work with cross-functional teams across the organization. They will likely be interested in people who are adaptable and flexible and who can work in team settings.