Shifting HR mindsets towards workforce agility

09 Oct 2018

09 Oct 2018

Facilitating a stimulating discussion of HR’s role in workforce transformation, Changeboard, in partnership with Capita, invited 10 HR directors to address the theory and practice of workforce agility (under Chatham House Rule).

Over dinner at the Riding House Café in London’s Fitzrovia district, attendees gained an initial perspective from The School of Life’s Francesco Dimitri, an Italian author, business facilitator and executive consultant.

He described how his determination, aged 18, to avoid traditional employment led to a diverse career of writing, speaking, consulting and training. “I was being agile, but I didn’t know that then,” he said.

“What really matters about me, what people pay for, is not my skill set, but me as a person. We are going through a massive shift, under which we are moving from hiring skill sets to hiring people. Skill sets are still important, of course, but we also live in a tech age where we can easily learn new skills. What matters most is who the person is. Agility is about this – and workforce agility is about switching from a context in which what matters is what you can do to one where what matters is who you are.

“Of course, this posits challenges to leaders,” he acknowledged, calling on participants, during the starters, to identify one challenge and one opportunity presented by workforce agility and consider how these might be connected.

Rabbits and oak trees

Moving on to the main course – and the main discussion – Dimitri used an analogy to clarify the essence of agility, outlining the success of rabbits in colonising the British Isles (when brought over by the Roman army) and subsequently Australia, when taken there by the British.

“Rabbits didn’t know they were coming to Britain, but they found a source of food and they got used to it,” he said. “Rabbits are very choosy when they come to their food; it’s not that they are generalists. They only eat the choicest parts of the plant. But they eat the choicest parts of many different plants. Then they went to Australia, a completely different environment, and they got used to that.

“Rabbits are able to spread, survive and thrive, not because they’re strong or particularly intelligent, but because they’re agile.”

Exemplifying his point further, he added: “The oak tree is the only tree that is present in all five continents. The reason it was able to spread was because it adapted, dividing into 600 different species. What we are called to be, in our industries today, is much more like rabbits and oak trees.

“What does this mean?" he asked. "It means the workforce is going to change the way it works, where it works; people are going to change roles more quickly than before, to shift jobs more quickly. We should consider it as an apocalyptic paradigm shift. It changes the world.”

Dimitri considers this both a tremendous opportunity – to give people new and unexpected things all the time and, therefore, to keep them engaged – and a significant challenge.

“I found something very interesting in Capita’s White Paper, The Race to an Agile Workforce,” he continued. “Most HR leaders think agility is going to be far more important than stability for the survival and success of businesses in the near future.”

“If the workforce is agile, leaders need to be nimble,” he argued. “The way you’ve been doing leadership so far is over. The real challenge here is not trying to foresee the future, it’s not dealing with change and the unknown, it’s about thriving with change and the unknown. As rabbits did, as the oak tree did. In order to do that, we need to change our mindset.

He steered participants: “While we are having our mains, I want you to start building this new mindset, thinking in very practical terms: what could you do, in practice, with the people, the budget, the power that you have in very real situations, in six months, to improve the agility of your own workforce and your nimbleness.”

Creative possibilities

Fulfilling his request, attendees discussed the advantages and difficulties of transforming organisational structures and considered real-life examples, including PwC’s Flexible Talent Network, which matches recruits to relevant projects rather than specific roles, allowing individuals to choose their preferred working hours.

The policy of an American Bitcoin company to focus on outcomes by removing all working hours and holidays (“everything that implies a structure”) was considered “passive aggressive” by some attendees.

“What they really mean is ‘work like hell’,” said one HR director. “They know you’re not going to take 12-week holidays.

 “Most millennials would be on board with that, though,” countered Dimitri. “They would take their holidays. It’s about learning how to thrive with change. That kind of organisation will attract young, bright talent. It will open creative possibilities.”

For global, multi-cultural organisations working across countries, a focus on outcomes over inflexible structures is essential, argued another delegate. “There has to be trust, accountability and a belief in what you’re doing,” she stressed.


With a general consensus that “no one size fits all” in terms of organisational structure, participants discussed options such as improved workforce utilisation (looking internally for excess capacity for projects, rather than defaulting to external recruitment), plus the struggle of building culture and engagement amid increased flexibility.

Empty banks of desks due to home working undermine human connectivity, observed one HR director. “We have lots of Skype meetings and always use the camera,” she said. “There’s a real no-no of people multi-tasking on the call. It’s about being present, listening and contributing.”

Meanwhile, introducing adjustable hours and locations can actually lead to overwork for some employees.

As one participant commented: “We used to say jokingly, ‘it’s always 5pm somewhere, so you can justify a drink’. Now, in business it has become ‘it’s always 9am somewhere’. The email and meeting culture: there’s almost an expectation that you should work 24/7.”

Dimitri acknowledged that “problem-specific solutions” must for found for every organisation – and, in some cases, for every person – requiring nimble leadership.

“This shift is something that can work better for everybody, but there are massive challenges,” he admitted.

Changeboard’s CEO, Jim Carrick-Birtwell, stressed the core role of leaders in changing cultures by mindset modelling. “I’ve worked with [former England rugby head coach] Clive Woodward, who describes people as rocks or sponges: people who are blockers within organisations, resistant to change, and people who will suck it all up.”

Both ‘types’ can actually add value to organisations, an attendee pointed out, providing stability as well as innovation.

“That’s why I mentioned oak trees earlier,” agreed Dimitri. “Oak trees are very stable once they get somewhere; but they’ve been incredibly adaptable along the way.”

 “You’ve got to foster and nurture each culture,” summed up an HR director. “The agility is in being able to treat people in different ways.”