Follow the agile brick road…

At the beginning of 2017, after 6 months of research and development, we began our journey to roll out agile working across the Library. As an academic library, our vision was to push the boundaries of our preconceived ideas of how and where we worked.

Staff from different Library departments working together in new, agile workspaces


The tweet above proved to me that we had reached a huge milestone along our journey…

But when I discuss this with people, the question remained:

What is agile working?

I like this diagram by Michael Sahota about agile working (albeit from an mainly IT perspective) as it outlines a shift, a transition, a move from a workplace culture that most of us are very familiar with (control) to a world of collaboration (people coming together). Based on the Schneider Culture Model, it’s crucial to know your starting point… what is your organisation’s current work culture? As they say, you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.


Agile diagram
The Schneider culture model


There are lots of descriptions of agile working. I believe each organisation should develop their own answer to this question. However this answer must be based on the reason why you decided to develop an agile working model in the first place.

At the University of Manchester Library, our aims for agile working were very clear:

  • To use our space in better ways
  • To be able to respond to organisational change (people moving around)
  • To develop the culture in our workplace

As Neil Usher states in his book The Elemental Workplace “everyone deserves a fantastic workplace”. I couldn’t agree more. What we did at the Library wasn’t rocket science, but it had fantastic results, results based on our three aims. Sometimes you have to look at the box and see it’s potential.


When looking at your (often beech coloured) workspace, think outside the (often beech coloured) box


Agile working at the University of Manchester Library has been defined as a way of working that:

helps improve how we use our spaces and provides greater flexibility to support future change. Teams have more options of how to undertake their work such as collaborating with others and working individually.

I believe that developing agile working is critical. Why? Well apart from having a fantastic workplace, I think it is our duty to make sure all our colleagues are as happy, healthy and productive as they can be. But, in 2018, how has the way we work really changed since the industrial revolution? I argue not enough. 


The way we work in 2018 may have similarities to this scene painted by Lowry in 1943


Agile working isn’t only about furniture and redevelopment projects – see my previous blog on (Work) Space + Culture = (Work) Place. However space is critical. Space influences us and shapes they way we behave. Private organisations have known this for years. Every time you walk through the doors at ASDA, the layout of the space, the smells and sights encourage you to behave in a certain way… ending in you spending money at the tills.

Who would ever want to work in this workspace?




A typical call centre workspace


And yet so many people did, and still do! The term ‘watercooler moment’ was born out of this environment; visiting the watercooler gave people an almost luxury break from the isolation of working in these booths. Battery farm hens go mad… no wonder people working in call centre environments can be so unhappy, stressed and ill.

Agile working IS NOT hot desking. We feel so strongly about this at the Library that we don’t use the term. And for good reason. Hot desking has a bad reputation. However the lessons learnt from failed hot desk initiatives have helped the development of our agile working model.


Our research led us to understand that we were creating an ’emerging agile working’ model. We were shifting in terms of our views of agile working as a strategy, a value proposition, a model to improve how we used our physical space and as a way to enhance our people.


Agile working is not an off-the-shelf product. It cannot be sold as a ‘thing’ from a consultant nor will it appear by magic after an office refit. Agile working, as a model, is agile in it’s own right; it is malleable and needs shaping. It must be dynamic to respond to change but strong enough to stand it’s ground within the organisational setting. It’s use across many sectors has had profound outcomes.


We worked extensively with our colleagues, visited a number of agile organisations and researched many case studies. We developed a bespoke model for the Library and provide all staff with guidance, information, templates and the structure to help staff become more agile. This included providing staff with not just technology but also choice of where, when and how to do their work in order to have the best outcome. It is crucial to say that staff were trusted to work in agile ways. They were supported and encouraged to be agile. They were given permission to be agile workers. The effect of this was quite astonishing.


We analysed how staff used different workspaces, their perceptions of the Library as an agile organisation, how they felt about their workspaces and their overall satisfaction across a number of areas, before and after a pilot period. We found that:


We then added to these ‘softer’ improvements (improvements to the ways we worked) with ‘harder’ changes to our physical workspaces (improvements to where we worked). This included changing furniture, having clear outs, allowing staff to choose colours and other decorative finishes, installing docking stations and creating focus and collaborative spaces.


We are now starting to roll out the agile working model to more teams in the Library. This is an amazing step forward and I believe we are the only academic library in a UK university to have an agile working model. I hate to say it but the staff workspace realm is often an ignored area in the education sector, although this is slowly changing.

When we think about managing space in our libraries, this should extend to all spaces, including staff spaces. There is a lot of things changing around us (technology, students, politics, social interaction); therefore we have to adapt to this and change too

Our spaces shape, influence, enhance and limit us. Ask yourself; how does my current workspace affect my happiness, health and productivity? Improving your workspaces doesn’t have to cost millions of pounds or need you to rebuild Rome in a day. Apply energy, passion and action and you may be surprised by the results.

Mike Kelly
Library Space Development Manager

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