How to be agile

Nov 25, 2020 | News

It’s easy to be intimidated by change, especially when the upheaval is coming as thick and fast as it is now. Covid-19 has ushered in perhaps the most fundamental change to the way businesses operate since the arrival of the internet.

It feels like a world in flux, and business leaders are justifiably anxious about developments outside of their control. The year has been dominated by a cycle of lockdowns, restrictions and uncertainties. Next year may bring a gradual return to something approaching normal, though nobody knows exactly when or how that will happen.

And as far as ‘normal’ is concerned, nobody knows exactly what will happen, either. Covid has vastly accelerated a number of workplace trends already in play, forcing companies to adopt new strategies, policies and technologies at breakneck speed. From digital transformation to remote working, 2020 feels like the year when everything changed in the blink of an eye.

Making change work

So how should organisations react to this constant cycle of change? At times like this, a certain amount of trepidation is natural. Business doesn’t like uncertainty, because it leads to indecision. How can you plan for a post-pandemic future when it’s impossible to predict what will happen next week?

At the same time, most companies know that standing stock still in the glare of the pandemic’s headlights isn’t an option either, not if you want to survive. And some of them do more than simply step out of the path of the speeding juggernaut. They take upheaval in their stride.

Think of the businesses that successfully pivoted during Covid, like fashion companies making PPE, pubs offering quiet corners and WiFi to remote workers, and any number of small businesses quickly creating apps for contactless pick up or delivery. There are lots of other examples of businesses that rode the Covid wave with a mix of creativity and agility. Most of them didn’t make a mint, but they all came up with new ideas and quickly put them into action.

Planning for change

In fact, that kind of agility is a trait that many successful companies share, and not just during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Agile companies are quick to exploit new markets, experiment with new technology, and change direction when things aren’t working out. They expect change, and are ready to react to it seamlessly and instantly.

Which begs the question: what makes an agile company? There are a lot of complex theories about how global enterprises become agile, though few actually are. Outside the technology space, many large companies are characterised by rigid leadership and entrenched ways of doing things.

Many SMEs are better off in this regard, because with less hierarchical structures, fewer competing interests and faster decision-making processes, agility is easier to achieve. And it stands to reason that persuading 50 people to do something differently is easier than persuading 5,000.

Risk and opportunity

For SMEs, the first step to becoming more agile is a mental one. Change may be risky and anxiety-inducing, but it’s also ripe with opportunity. Evolution happens faster in extreme conditions. Those businesses that adapt most successfully to Covid will be best equipped to prosper in a post-pandemic world.

So the pub that decided to invite remote workers through its doors at 11am during Covid might have found a permanent new revenue stream for the quietest part of the day. The fashion house making scrubs may have found new skills, contacts and contracts in the practical workwear sector.

But agility is as much about how you do things as what you do, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A lot of successful businesses didn’t pivot their entire business model during Covid, but did change the way they worked. Initially, change may have been forced on them, but while rigid businesses saw lockdown as a temporary break from the norm, more agile companies saw it as an opportunity to innovate.

Innovating during a pandemic

In some cases, this has meant implementing more progressive workplace policies, and there’s growing evidence that many SMEs will continue to offer hybrid working after the pandemic ends. In many cases its meant accelerating the pace of digital transformation. Rigid businesses did this reluctantly and slowly – and may wind back the clock when the pandemic ends. Agile counterparts embraced lockdown as a way to quickly adopt more efficient ways of working.

Technology is fundamental here because it can facilitate agility. Businesses that saw Covid as an opportunity to implement better SaaS applications, for example, will emerge stronger from the pandemic. They will benefit from reduced capex at a time when money is tight, more productive and effective remote teams, and the ability to easily scale capacity up and down as circumstances dictate. In a nutshell, agile businesses used Covid as an excuse to become leaner and fitter for the future.

So, for SMEs, agility has two components. Fundamentally, it’s a mindset. Change can be worrying and difficult but agile firms embrace it anyway, and look for the opportunities it creates.

And agility is also about putting the right processes into place. The world is increasingly digital, so those processes tend to be digital as well. Agile businesses will emerge from the pandemic with smoother communications, better remote working tools and smarter ways of working.

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