I recently got a piece of feedback from an Agile HR learning program that was really confusing.
“This is a utopia, sounds like hype and wanting to cash in on something that can’t be done. Nice ideas, but we can’t work like this in HR policy and operations, especially in the public sector! We can’t create Agile teams. This is not for us”.
For me, it sounded like the years spent in the public sector, with all the constraints and bureaucracy, had blocked this person’s mindset. They were so emotionally triggered by all the great Agile HR examples and ideas that couldn’t be done in their public sector context, so they were unable to pick up on ideas and applications that COULD be done. Bringing Agile alive in traditional settings is a combination of a skillset and a mindset, spiced with a bit of grit and courage.
This, in turn, triggered me quite a lot. So, let’s make this even more explicit.
How can HR be Agile?
You can apply the Agile mindset and Agile practices in the most traditional, most bureaucratic, most constrained environment within HR operations.
So here are five practical ideas that show the role of HR in Agile transformation. You can take them away and apply immediately in any context.
1. Vacation Request Management: Change your holiday process to a human-friendly process and/or give the team the ability to decide together on holidays
Give teams the ability to agree on holidays themselves. Clarify the holiday policy, the regulations and the constraints to the teams. Facilitate a discussion around team commitments for agreeing on holidays. For example, the team should agree on:
What a fair decision-making process looks like
What to do if there is a conflict of interest, i.e. when too many people want to have holidays around the same time
How to avoid that less assertive people will “give in” on their preferences
How not having to justify to each other why you’d prefer a holiday at a certain time, which is nobody’s business.
How to make the holiday preferences transparent
Then allow the teams to use these team commitments to plan the best possible holiday periods for each person, of course, considering their projects and customers. Nothing in your holiday policy has to change, you are also compliant with the holiday legislation and corporate constraints. You just help the teams to start managing their time themselves.
If you want to take it to the extreme, there are organisations that have started with unlimited holidays — “have as much time off from work as you wish, as long as you agree with your team and customers, and your work is progressing well”. Why not try this out in a smaller part of the organization and see how it plays out.
That is not a utopia, it already exists.
2. HR Audit Process: Conduct a bureaucracy audit of all the approvals in a people process to simplify and streamline it
Go through an HR process and list all the approvals required in the process. Get facts or robust estimations about the average lead times and waiting times in each part of the process. Calculate the workload that your process creates for the average manager. Now calculate the price for this workload you in HR create for managers.
Your objective is to install minimum viable bureaucracy. Try to get rid of blockers, extra validations, HR checks and approvals.
Work with the “5 x WHY?” and what the value is for each approval in the system. Evaluate the validity and usefulness of each approval. Actively look for reasons, ideas and argumentation why and how you should remove each approval, check, additional insertion of data, or tick-the-box activity from your process. Actively look for redesign opportunities of your practice in order to streamline it.
Many unnecessary levels of HR bureaucracy layers are added just “in case” or trying to make watertight processes where no mistakes can happen. Many of these stem from distrust in employees. “We have to have controls in place so that no one can trick the system”. What an awful human view to build the people practices on. This leads to laborious and rigid approval chains all around the organization.
Why do we have to have double layer approvals for recruitments in companies in the situation where the hiring manager has the P&L responsibility for their business? Shouldn’t we trust them to allocate the budget according to their best knowledge?
Why do we have double layers of approvals for people’s development discussions?
Why can’t we turn things around? What would happen if your starting point was to build people practices that trust your employees?
I have been working as an HR leader in a company (650 employees) where we changed the loathed travel expense reclaim process from a laborious, manual, manager-approved process that took two months on average (because the managers never prioritized checking and approving costs), to a streamlined digital process taking a single week from reclaiming the costs to payment to your bank account.
The magic trick was to TRUST the employees and challenge the existing bias about company policies.
We trusted employees to reclaim travel expenses correctly, they sent their receipts digitally. We removed the manager’s approval and centralized the whole company’s approval of the travel costs to the persons doing the payouts.
First, the company legal and financial decision-makers said that it isn’t possible to remove the manager’s approval. I challenged this. “Show me the law that says that the bookkeepers can’t be the approving body for everyone’s travel expenses”. They couldn’t.
Second, they said that we will have less control over the spend if the managers aren’t approving the expenses. I challenged this by agreeing on a 500 EUR limit for approvals by the bookkeepers, covering about 85% of the travel expense payments. If the travel expenses exceeded 500 EUR the approval was done by the manager. That was accepted. Done. Everyone agreed that the new process was way better!
3. Start using Kanban in HR to visualize your people team’s work – transparency about what everyone is doing to everyone in the team.
You don’t have to be agile, or start working in Scrum teams to bring full transparency into your HR team’s work.
Implementing an HR Kanban board, where every team member adds what they are working on weekly will be super helpful. The Kanban board is basically a board with columns for upcoming work (backlog), up next (to do), doing (ongoing work in progress) and done.
By using a Kanban for visualizing your HR team’s work everyone has an overview of what’s happening, coordination and communication around certain dependencies and common projects improve almost by itself and the team members start visualizing their workload in a clear, consistent and common way. You might even find that your team members start collaborating and sharing, learning from each other and offering help to each other! (Even in the most traditional of workplaces…)
Be prepared that Kanban in HR will reveal quite a lot about a traditional team’s working patterns. Everyone is not welcoming this amount of transparency with open arms, and you should discuss the reasons for why. Together you can come up with solutions on the level of transparency that is valuable to drive communication and collaboration, but not interfere with privacy and confidentiality.
4. Co-create solutions with your users and ask for feedback on your HR deliverables way BEFORE you deliver them
Whatever HR deliverables you are developing, just as with anything really, get feedback early and often. You should start presenting the earliest prototypes of your ideas to the people who you are serving with your product or service.
The simplest example could be to ask a small number of people for feedback before sending an email out to all managers. This feedback should help you validate whether or not the message was understood, the action you are asking for is clear, and the manager finds the information valuable. If not, improve, iterate or pivot!
The more advanced co-creation includes workshopping with internal users such as employees, managers, or external users such as candidates or potential external partners. Invite them to co-create and ideate on people solutions with you.
For example, ask newcomers to design a best in class onboarding event for themselves during a 1.5-hour hackathon – and use the best ideas from it to design an onboarding day. It’s easy when you open up your mind to the power and potential of employees and people outside HR!
5. Use recommendations and ranges instead of rigid one-size-fits-all HR policies carved in stone.
In the policies where you are not bound by the legislation, your company sets the tone of the working policies. This is sometimes tricky for HR people to wrap their head around. We can actually decide on or influence these policies and make them useful instead of obstructive!
The HR policies we set should help people perform and work, should help them be healthy and safe at work. And don’t give me the nonsense about “policies are not set by us in the public sector”. I’ve worked with the tax authorities, with healthcare and with public sector administration, they can definitely influence the main parts of the policies in their units within the given limitations.
For example, you might be planning how to support people returning to a hybrid workplace after the pandemic. How about not even trying to come up with a policy or strict guidelines? How about approaching this need as an ongoing, organic and changing support need?
Start listening to the real, practical, everyday needs of your people and prepare to react and iterate with the solutions. Define a support budget, but don’t allocate it upfront in detail. Allocate funds according to real prioritized needs along the way. Set up an ongoing dialogue through digital tools with your employees, so you can communicate and crowdsource needs, ideas and skills for the hybrid workplace development.
Give freedom to the teams. Ask teams to clarify what the purpose is to meet face-to-face in their value delivery. Crystallize any constraints of the company to the teams (i.e. available office space, expectations on working from home, caring for wellbeing and workload) and then let the teams describe and iterate on their working practices to best deliver value within the existing constraints. Every team can come up with their own team commitments for the hybrid workplace. By the way… this should be a team discussion, not an individual decision.
Where you can, use guidelines and recommendations instead of setting a one-size-fits-all HR policy. Use ranges and data (“the best performing teams seem to spend 1-2 days per week doing face to face work”) instead of absolute numbers (“you have to be in the office at least 3 days per week”). Where you really, really, really must, define a clear and simple policy or rule. You can even have co-creation workshops to challenge these rules and policies. Could some be removed or redesigned to bring the same result?
Bottom line: We in HR must clarify the absolute non-negotiable, “must-have” constraints and legal expectations. When that’s clear, we can facilitate, trust and support the teams to actively discuss and agree on how they would best deliver value together in the new hybrid workplace, then support the team’s decisions and ongoing iteration of how to improve.
Agile HR Practices work in ANY context
Much of the Agile mindset, skillset and ways of working can be used in any context. The whole point is to be mindful of when and where to start applying it and how to bring others on board.
The examples here are actually very conservative from an Agile perspective. Take the most traditional, bureaucratic, boring, constrained company and you can still find ways to bring Agile alive in your people work.
If you find yourself reacting to these examples with “no, we can’t”, ask yourselves “why not?”. The reason isn’t that it doesn’t work in your company. The reason usually is that it doesn’t work for the people with power, or you don’t trust your employees and people enough to let go of that power and perceived safety of the bureaucracy.
If anything, the Agile HR Community builds our Agile HR programs around the practical application of Agile HR, that can be utilized in any context. The examples people bring back after taking the program are mind blowing. They go back and innovate their people practices, their teamwork and structures. They install collaboration between different functions in the company and focus on delivering more business value through better prioritization, focusing on what truly matters and cutting the process waste, simplifying the HR practices. They start evaluating their people practices through the lens of trust, instead of the lens of distrust in people.
No more excuses. Start learning. Start trusting. And start building healthy workplaces! Now.