Is agile working the key to a productive, happy workforce?

Lead consultant, chartered physiotherapist and experienced ergonomist Katharine Metters reflects on the perks of agile working.

There’s a collective moment most office workers share on a Sunday evening, somewhere between The Antiques Roadshow and the 10 o'clock news, when the contented fug of the weekend fades away and our Monday hats come slamming on.

The realities of the week ahead start to sink in: the early rises, the busy commutes, child-care shuffles and the endless emails that keep us shackled to our desks from dawn to dusk. These are the things we value in modern life, working hard, beating deadlines, smashing targets, climbing the corporate ladder, being seen to work hard and being the best possible versions of ourselves. All a bit heavy for a Monday morning, don’t you think?

The dangers of the modern lifestyle

Possessing passion and drive is a commendable thing, of course - these qualities are the building blocks of every successful person in business. The problem is that most employers seem to be going about it in the wrong way.

How can we expect employees to be their most productive and innovative selves when we ask them to repeat the same routine every day? We all-too-often ask them to stay seated in the same chair, next to the same people, staring at the same computer every day. How is that conducive to a happy, efficient workforce?

Humans are intelligent, sentient beings - most of us need stimulation and change in our environments to do and feel our best.

To many people the average office can feel like a clinical, stagnant place. Everything is located below shoulder height - because everyone is seated. It doesn’t help that many modern devices like smartphones and tablets encourage us into unnatural positions which puts enormous strain on our bodies and can cause permanent harm.

People often remain sedentary in these unhealthy positions all day, save perhaps for a few toilet and refreshment stops and, depending on one’s workload, a quick dash to the supermarket for a sandwich at lunch. And many barely manage that. According to a recent Bupa survey, a third of Britain’s workers don’t even bother to get up at lunchtime, choosing instead to eat at their desks.

We’ve known now for many years that prolonged sitting leads to a host of painful and often debilitating musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). An estimated 9.5 million working days were lost to work-related musculoskeletal disorders in 12 months between 2014 and 2015. Recent studies also show a link to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems and premature death.

The UK was also recently found to be one of the least productive countries in terms of output per hour in the G7 - despite working some of the longest days. How demoralising is that! The Government believes increasing productivity is the key to raising living standards in the UK - but how are we going to do this?

It seems the answer to boosting output is not working longer hours, setting tighter deadlines, or skipping lunch breaks. This isn’t the Industrial Revolution, cracking whips isn’t the answer to Britain’s productivity problems.

As I’ve already mentioned, prolonged sitting, long hours and physical and mental tension are all contributing factors in the rise of musculoskeletal problems and resulting sick days and presenteeism (showing face but not achieving) - all in all very bad news for productivity levels. On the contrary, I believe it all begins with staff happiness.

The link between pain and happiness

There is a proven link between happiness and pain. I saw and accepted this while I was working clinically - it seemed to me that people who had a more positive outlook seemed to get more out of life and - perhaps as a result, felt less pain.

When I’m feeling controversial I sometimes ask - why don’t happy, contented people seem to get chronic MSDs at work? My instinct (and experience) tells me there is something about being happier - perhaps having an occupied mind and a more positive outlook - that gets people to take action to resolve issues. Something that will ultimately help resolve their pain.

We can’t tell people to be happy. In fact, telling an unhappy-looking person to cheer up can have an adverse effect. However, we do all have a moral responsibility to help our colleagues when we sense they’re struggling.

Often something as simple as a smile, a compliment, telling a funny story or sending a funny picture can make a difference to their mood in that moment. It’s all about finding opportunities to make people smile - and you might never know how big a difference that makes.

Let’s look at how unhappiness affects our bodies at work:

  • It changes our posture - body language tends to reflect how we’re feeling. We often find ourselves slouching when we’re down, perhaps to make ourselves less conspicuous, or we might cross our arms and legs to show we don’t want to be approached, which can impede blood circulation around the body.
  • It creates tension - stress is a survival mechanism. When we sense we’re in danger our bodies react with the fight or flight response: our muscles contract in preparation for a fight, or a quick sprint in the opposite direction. In modern life this physiological reaction can be triggered by general day-to-day grievances, impeding blood-flow and eventually causing aches and pains in the muscles.
  • It changes how we move - being unhappy can make us less feel less motivated to get up and stretch, or make the effort to get outside for a walk at lunch.
  • It changes how we communicate - being unhappy can make us less inclined to get up and speak to our colleagues, which again impacts our activity levels throughout the day. It can also stop us asking for help to resolve underlying issues.

More research needs to be carried out into the link between pain and happiness but one US study is of particular interest. This study looks at musculoskeletal disorders in relation to the ‘biopsychosocial model’, meaning we consider them in a wider context, taking into account physical, psychological and social factors. The study says:

“...employment is important for understanding how MSDs exist as part of people’s working lives. Additionally, an employee’s work context and employer policies can exacerbate or alleviate some of the symptoms associated with MSDs.”

With working habits, policies and environment all impacting MSDs, and MSDs in turn impacting productivity, the question now is - how can we change our working environments to help energise and invigorate our staff?

Can agile working boost employee happiness?

I believe that implementing a suitable agile working policy is a great step towards creating a healthier workplace. According to the NHS, agile working is:

“A way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose - with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints - to optimise their performance and deliver best in class value and customer service.”

The idea behind this theory is that it is output (what is done) that matters when it comes to productivity, not input (how it’s done). Work is an activity we do, not a place we go. With this concept at the heart of our businesses, we could increase the activity of all our staff and help limit stagnancy, unhappiness, presenteeism and absenteeism.

If you'd like to know more, our website features a dedicated information page all about agile working.

Here are 5 ways to create an agile working environment:

  • Give people more control over how they do their work - everyone has a preferred style.
  • Allow more flexibility over when they work - flexibility helps alleviate stress.
  • Provide a range of physical working environments - variation and choice helps keep people stimulated.
  • Value output of work and not hours spent on it - this limits presenteeism - showing face but not being productive.
  • Make a range of communication methods available to suit all people - e.g. email may not be ideal for people with dyslexia.

With office activities rapidly moving online, many tasks can be conducted from anywhere in the world - why shackle our employees to their desks unnecessarily? As I said, work is not a place, it’s an activity. It can often be done on the train, plane, from home, from hotel rooms and from the office.

This is all great news for workers, who should see their work/life balance improve, their stress levels reduce and their activity levels rise with agile working. But what’s in it for employers?

Employer benefits of agile working

  • Dynamic office - people coming and going, different combinations of people stimulating different dynamics.
  • Increased productivity - happier, more engaged workers are more productive.
  • Increased innovation - people take ownership over their projects and thus put more effort and passion into their creations.
  • Ability to attract and retain high quality talent - agile working is a great incentive and boosts loyalty.
  • Improved business continuity - work can continue regardless of weather or travel disruptions.
  • Increased motivation of staff - feeling valued and having needs met helps motivate people to do a good job.
  • Reduction in carbon footprint - people are not always commuting into work.
  • Reduced absenteeism - higher activity levels limit prolonged sitting and reduce risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

All evidence considered, there’s no doubt in my mind that agile working is the future of business in the UK. It has to be.  We have got to open our minds to new ways of working and managing our teams, and leave the old 9-5 office models behind if we want to create a more productive workforce. It’s important that we recognise the impact sedentary lifestyles are having on our employees and do everything we can to reduce this.

Besides, wouldn’t it make Sunday evenings that little bit more relaxing knowing that you don’t always have to race into the office in the morning if you really don’t want to? That you could buckle down on your workload from the comfort of your own home - and be there when that delivery arrives! It’s little freedoms like these that transform the way we feel about work and that ultimately have a huge impact on the output of our businesses.

Katharine Metters is a Member of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, holds a Master’s Degree in Ergonomics and is a Chartered Member of the Institute of Safety and Health.