What is agile HR and why you need it now

Last updated:
December 14, 2020
December 18, 2021
min read
Adrie Smith
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Table of contents

HR is still a rising star in most organizations. It’s more widely accepted and practiced in tech companies, though. The agile concept was devised and written in 2001 by a group of programmers who wanted to speed up their development. Today it’s estimated that 97% of software companies use agile development methods.

Utilizing agile methods at an organizational level makes it easy to integrate the concepts and methodologies in various departments, including HR. However, most other industries are either still in the dark or experimented a bit with agile and found it didn’t work for them.

Agile won’t necessarily work well in all industries, but certain aspects can be adopted very successfully across business sectors. Even if a company doesn’t operate on agile principles, agile HR can still become a working model.

What is agile HR?

It can be challenging to contextualize, and it can also be daunting initially for people who are accustomed to rigid and controlled systems.

The HR Trend Institute describes agile HR as:

  • Working and organizing the HR function to facilitate responsiveness and adaptiveness of activities and structures
  • A means of facilitating the flexibility in matching workforce fluctuations to demand
  • How the HR function supports the organization in becoming more responsive and adaptive

Deloitte has described it as “a discipline with the goal to empower HR professionals to manage volatility better, enhance adaptability, and strengthen the organization by applying agile methodologies to their talent-management processes.”

It’s a transition from control and alignment set with long-term intentions and goals to a focus on delivering value through small, measured changes. The gradual change processes are validated through a test and learn approach to ensure that progress is moving in the right direction. Because changes get implemented in small steps, it’s easy and inexpensive to change course based on poor feedback.

Common misconceptions

People who don’t fully understand the agile concept hold many misconceptions that they use as objections when the topic gets broached. If you want to create a more flexible pool of employees through agile HR, prepare upfront before proposing a change. Here are some of the doubts you’ll have to dispel.

  • The primary goal is the speed at the expense of quality
  • It only works for development teams
  • There’s no predefined plan
  • It discourages keeping documentation
  • It doesn’t work for projects with fixed deadlines
  • It’s unmanageable because everyone gets to do what they want

Remember that there’s no rule book or blueprint. Every company and department has to adapt the principles to meet their unique products, values, culture, and processes. It can be embraced completely, in part, or occasionally depending on current circumstances and the size of the business. There are no hard and fast rules!

Flexibility and agility have never been more critical than right now

As the business world slowly starts to reopen after months of enforced lockdowns, business leaders are walking into significant challenges they’ve never experienced before. A typical example is the fashion industry. In many countries, sales dropped by up to 90%. Clothing retailers are sitting with stock that’s out of season, and that will soon be out of fashion. They have a dilemma worth millions of dollars and a problem they’ve never seen before. As they weigh up options on what to do with the unsold goods, they need employees to implement solutions as they experiment.

They might have to hire new staff, or existing employees will have to adapt, change roles, and take on new responsibilities. If a workforce gets used to rigid instructions and management styles, the transition won’t be smooth and will cost valuable time. Departmental and line management won’t be able to shoulder the additional burden of realigning the workforce focus. That’s where the HR department can step in.

HR can split into teams responsible for guiding employees in different departments, such as marketing, warehousing, distribution, and in-store retail. Each HR team can devise ways to guide and support employees through the changes while working closely with department and line managers.

Training, role changes, and employee concerns can be managed by HR teams, who must also encourage staff to give constant feedback via open communication channels on how the new systems are working. Giving responsibility and ownership to employees will make them feel that they are part of the solution and will encourage their willingness to embrace change rather than resist it.

What does a more agile HR look like?

Before you can adopt agile human resources practices, there needs to be a change of mindset. That can be difficult and lead to people feeling threatened. Some upfront training and orientation are essential to get buy-in from the HR team. It won’t take long, however, for people to see the benefits.

Abandon HR silos

The first thing that must get abandoned is HR silos that are so common that many people are unaware of them. This separation in the ownership of, and accessibility to, information builds obstacles to the fluidity of all processes. Also, a hierarchy in decision making where authorization moves from one topic owner to another slows progress by weeks in some instances.

A typical example is recruitment data silos, where HR only is privy to critical information and metrics. Department and hiring managers have to request this information and wait for HR to respond. In agile HR, this information is shared openly with managers involved in each project.

Don’t follow development systems

What works in software development doesn’t necessarily work in HR. As with any good advice, take the good and discard what’s irrelevant. Don’t worry about appointing a scrum master, getting scrum boards, having stand-ups, and sticky-notes. Each HR team will need a leader to guide the process, but it’s the agile concept you want to adopt, not a blueprint of the methodology. The idea is for HR to comprise multi-skilled teams who can self-organize, make quick decisions, and respond to business needs on short notice.

Shift values to becoming people-centric

The focus needs to shift from following best HR practices and ensuring policies and procedures get adhered to, to viewing the workforce as internal customers of HR. Delivering customer value is helping employees succeed in their jobs and meeting organizational needs in the shortest time with the best quality.

This shift requires that HR design people-centric practices that are shared with employees and validated through direct feedback. The immediate implication is that previous best practices no longer apply, and management no longer formulates policies and procedures that they believe will benefit the workforce and the organization.

Bear in mind that this can be a significant change for both leaders and staff. Leaders might fear losing control, and staff can be so accustomed to following orders that they don’t know how to contribute. Training and guidance will, however, break down the barriers.

Get used to the idea of incremental development

Agile HR delivers incremental value to their customers. Small chunks of the big picture are addressed in order of importance and adapted in line with customer feedback. It’s a step by step process that’s continuously shared with role players for validation through a test and learn approach.

This is a significant change from rigid upfront planning that can’t be changed or adapted once it gets implemented.

Where previously new systems or processes were piloted, agile HR functions on experimentation. When a system is piloted, it has already been selected as the preferred solution. And there’s been a considerable investment in time and money. As it gets rolled out, it’s tweaked, and people get trained to adapt. If, in the end, management decides it doesn’t work, there’s a sizeable loss on the balance sheet.

Experimentation mitigates the risk of financial loss because new systems and processes are adopted incrementally in small steps. Ideas and methods that don’t work can quickly be abandoned and replaced. Because the people who are working at the rock face have direct input, impracticalities and ill-founded ideas are easily identified. This amounts to massive savings in time and money.

In closing

You can adopt aspects of agile HR without requiring a change from within the whole organization. It does require the buy-in of department, line, and hiring managers as the sharing of information in real-time is essential.

There need to be open communication channels with employees that involve more than random emails and are hoping for a reply. HR must set up internal communications systems easily accessible to staff and get a quick response, much like face to face communication. If you need to send out a survey, precede it with a message of what it’s about and why you need employees’ input. Employees must become co-creators of solutions and progress.

Management needs access to recruitment related data. Investing in an applicant tracking system to empower your hiring teams will solve the problem. HR structure models have to be changed to accommodate HR staff who can quickly adapt and move within teams as organizational needs arise.

Finally, HR must accumulate evidence-based data to present to executive management to prove those project solutions are successful, cost-effective, and concluded as soon as possible. Compliance with local and international regulations is as important as ever. What changes is how post-pandemic recruitment and employee engagement happens.

Before 2020 we knew that the business environment was set to continue evolving, but no one was prepared for how rapidly organizations will have to change in the Covid-19 era. And we still don’t have an idea of the depth of change required. We’re still learning as we go and adapting recruitment in these times of uncertainty.

Further reading: 6 steps to implementing agile recruiting

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