Agile teams and the new normal: key factors for future success

Research shows that agile teams boost employee performance and engagement and that agile teams have continued to perform well during Covid-19. What does this mean for our post-pandemic world? Researchers from Alliance Manchester Business School and leadership consultancy Cirrus share insights into the key factors of team agility, the importance of empowering leadership, and consider how we can apply these insights to an uncertain future

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the pace of change across the globe. Many organisations have had to adapt to change quickly and effectively by building agile teams and embracing agile ways of working. We have been forced to challenge deep-rooted assumptions and ways of working. Many are keen to apply the learning from this intense period of transformation as we emerge into a post-pandemic world to face the ‘new normal’.

Our new research has identified six key factors of team agility that enable teams to respond quickly and effectively to changing demands. When a team achieves a blend of all six, they can be defined as truly agile. The study revealed that agile teams with these characteristics improve performance at both an individual and team level, while also boosting employee engagement. By applying this learning in a systematic way across your own organisation, you can face the future with increased confidence.

Six key factors of team agility

  1. Multi-skilled teams: Team members possess diverse skills and assume multiple roles when working on projects, allowing them to adapt and work amongst themselves when priorities change.
  2. Iterative planning: Agile teams hold regular planning meetings to stay aligned with demands by setting short-term task goals and reviewing progress on critical tasks.
  3. Customer involvement: Agile teams focus on customer needs, collaborate and communicate with customers regularly, and incorporate customer feedback throughout project cycles.
  4. Team autonomy: Agile teams are empowered to decide how to complete and organise their work, which speeds up decision-making and task cycles, and enhances task effectiveness.
  5. Team speed: Agile teams accelerate their output over time through continuous learning and improvement.  
  6. Team prioritisation: Agile teams focus on delivering the most valuable customer outputs by keeping to deadlines and reprioritising tasks in line with customer priorities. They are flexible in how they complete tasks while maintaining key dates.

Agile teams and resilience in the pandemic

Our study ran over two periods, before and after the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Somewhat unexpectedly, pandemic-induced increases in home working had minimal effect on team agility and workplace productivity. According to the data, 80% of employees reported that they were able to maintain or improve productivity, with only one in five finding it had a detrimental impact on performance.

This implies that agile teams are resilient to major change – such as the switch from collocated to dispersed working – and hence play a positive role in fostering organisational resilience. This resilience, so critical for many organisations during the intensity of the pandemic, will remain vital as we face an uncertain future.   

Agile teams and ‘the new normal’

The growing consensus from employers as diverse as Siemens, Fujitsu and Google is that remote working is here to stay. Many plan to move to a more hybrid working model, where employees have much more flexibility and choice around how and where they work.

Flexibility is a critical factor for many employees. Our research revealed that for one in five participants, care responsibilities during the pandemic have had a negative impact on their performance. Therefore, it is crucial for organisations to identify employees who may be struggling to work from home and to ensure that team leaders are in regular contact with their teams to offer the support and flexibility they require.

The importance of empowering leadership

To succeed in complex times – both now and in the future – the role of the team leader is critical. Leaders can ensure that teams embrace agile ways of working. The research findings demonstrate that it is empowering leadership, in particular, that promotes agile teams. Empowering leaders do this by fostering confidence in teams to take on increased decision-making for how they achieve their goals. 

Empowering leaders provide a clear framework to the team and have regular communications so that there is a healthy flow of feedback. They give teams the autonomy to make the decisions about what they can do and how to organise themselves, based on clear priorities. They encourage the regular check-ins to review progress that are such an important part of iterative planning, one of the key factors of agile teams.

Mutual respect and empathy are essential ingredients for agile team working to flourish. Leaders have an important role to play in helping team members to build deeper respect for each other, and for those in other teams. When leaders help team members to recognise other people’s perspectives and show empathy, they help to create a climate where the key factors of team agility can develop. Team cooperation is also important, and members in effective agile teams tend to be open and trusting with each other. Agile working requires them to work together and support each other to overcome challenges, so trust is a key ingredient in agile teams.

Leaders themselves often benefit from development to help them ‘let go’ so that others can take responsibility and act with autonomy. Effective, empowering leaders coach their teams to step up, nurture talent and develop capability. They identify the decisions only they can make and delegate the rest. They invest in talent, learning and development to ensure they build the multi-skilled teams which are a key factor in successful agile working.  When team members have diverse skills and can take on multiple project roles, they can adapt more easily to changing priorities.

Future-proofing the organisation

If leaders can facilitate agile team practices and encourage high-quality dialogue between employees, they can build a strong foundation for success – whether they plan to return to office-based working, continue working remotely, or create a hybrid of the two. Developing an empowered leadership capability throughout the organisation is therefore likely to improve team performance and, ultimately, help future-proof organisations.

Agile teams create innovation and drive constant improvement. Our research demonstrates that they have a positive impact on productivity. To succeed in such complex times, we need to enable our teams to embrace agile ways of working.

This research was led by a team at Alliance Manchester Business School – Professor David Holman, Dr Kara Ng, Dr Sara Willis, Professor Sheena Johnson and Professor Robin Martin – alongside Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus and Honorary Professor at Alliance Manchester Business School.

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