agile working pitfalls
Agile working
4 min read

When agile doesn’t work – How to negotiate the pitfalls of agile working

An organization can be thought of as an organism: a living, dynamic, complex system.

In complex systems, there are often unintended consequences when a change is made. There are side-effects. And if people don’t like the side effects, they may choose not to take the drug that’s producing them, even if they need it to alleviate their illness. One Dutch insurance company found a few undesirable effects cropping up when they implemented agile working

Serial space bookers

For example, some people started booking the same desk every day. 

As a result, they naturally began to take up permanent positions in the office. Many wanted to sit with the same colleagues, day in day out. Obviously this static, 9-5, departmental behavior flew in the face of the flexible, autonomous, collaborative culture they were trying to instil.

Using workspace management tools like Smartway2 prevents this particular agile working pitfall. Our rules engine enables you to set desk booking parameters, e.g. nobody can book the same desk for three days in a row. 

Them and us

Another pitfall that’s particularly troublesome is the re-emergence of traditional hierarchies and power divides. Hierarchy has a tendency to creep back in, in unexpected ways. For instance, in the Dutch subsidiary’s freshly architected workspace, there was a sense that the first floor was superior. Some even referred to the ground floor as the ‘shop floor’. 

All systems have a hierarchy to some degree – even networks – but in an agile culture, this should change and flex according to the project at hand. I might take a leadership position in one project and not in another. Hierarchy according to expertise, as opposed to job title or org chart position, is acceptable in most modern workplaces striving for ‘flat’. 

Leaders that emerge naturally – simply because people want to follow them – are also welcome to go forth and conquer. Yet old habits die hard, so it’s easy for old school ‘them and us’, ‘management and shop floor’ to rear its head, sabotaging our flat, agile efforts. 

Again, using the right space-booking tools can prevent these status divides from countering your agile working strategy. Coaching also plays an important role in helping people adapt to a new dialogue. As does storytelling: shaping a narrative the helps people understand the journey and its purpose. 

Inflexible time & other gripes

Another challenge faced by the subsidiary was people earmarking specific days as ‘working from home’ days, making themselves unavailable for meetings. Left unchecked, this led to a decrease in collaboration and agility. 

Other common complaints are people breaking the rules, talking too loudly on the phone, interruptions and distractions from colleagues and unreliable technology or poor usability. Without corrective action, annoyances like these can lead to poor employee experience. 

Always on

Likewise, working from anywhere, enabled by mobile, can lead to an expectation that people should reply to emails and answer calls, wherever they are, at any time of the day or night. This always-on mentality can easily get out of control, eroding wellbeing and reducing ability to focus on tasks that require concentration. 

That’s why some European countries, particularly France, have been pioneering The Right To Disconnect. Again, coaching around pitfalls like this can help people strike a balance between flexibility and over-reactive working. 

Community spirit

A major concern many organizations and their employees hold around agile working practices is the erosion of community spirit in the workplace. In 9-5 working environments, close, caring relationships are often forged. A more fragmented, transient style of work can lead to individualism. 

Relationships are vital for collaboration – a major goal of agile working. That’s why it’s important to focus on creating time and space to foster relationships, regardless of physical location. 

Done right, the difference between old and new should be the difference between forging relationships with people you work physically close to (e.g. in your particular spot in the office, in your specific department) versus forging relationships with people in a more diverse range of disciplines and geographies. 

The opportunities for creativity, innovation and learning are only heightened by the diversity that collaboration across boundaries brings to bear. 

As ironic as it sounds, to make agile working work – to achieve new levels of freedom and flexibility – we need to find new levels of self discipline and self-management. As the pace of change accelerates, those who embody these traits and can work collaboratively will thrive.


Hannah Cresswell

Last updated May 8, 2020