agiLab combines leading academic research with practice-based insights to inform the effective delivery and implementation of agile working.

Agile working is a form of flexible working that involves adapting work patterns and the use of digital tools as needs change, offering genuinely innovative, customised and responsive options to liberate workers and organisations from rigid, traditional constraints. It encompasses both formal and informal arrangements and can support both organisational and worker needs regarding when, where and how people work.

Key findings

Led by Dr. Emma Russell at the University of Sussex, agiLab’s research highlights four guiding principles for successful agile working:

1. Remove arbitrary restrictions

Are old policies about working hours, time and place fit for purpose? Seek input and feedback from your workforce and note that so-called ‘flexible’ policies do not offer flexibility for all, and nor are they necessarily flexible for all time. Organisational and worker needs change, and work arrangements should be flexible enough to repond to this.

2. Consult your workers

Foster an ongoing, open dialogue between workers and employers about current needs and circumstances. Ensure that everyone’s voice is heard by adapting working arrangements to fit for different people.

3. Try things out

Ensure that work and digital boundaries are respected by trying out new forms of working. Seek input to design work appropriately, and keep things under review.

4. Support managers

Allow time for managers to get to know their team and provide them with tools and resources to support agile work.

Agile working in the NHS

agiLab has worked extensively in partnership with the NHS.

Specifically, it has worked in collaboration with the NHS Social Partnership Forum (SPF), the NHS HR Directors Network and the National Engagement Service, with the aim to develop and share research-led best practices for effective agile working and help inform policies within the NHS.

agiLab undertakes research to investigate key concerns raised by NHS workers and practitioners. Research findings are shared with NHS organisations through a series of triannual webinars and web pages.

agiLab has supported employers of NHS trusts and organisations to:

  • understand the agile working needs of marginalised workers (e.g., those with low socioeconomic status, or neurodivergence and disability) to ensure their voices are heard regarding access to agile work
  • understand how leaders can build ‘professional intimacy’ with their teams, to facilitate effective agile working
  • understand why different groups in the NHS (e.g., clinical and non-clinical workers) might form resentments about different arrangements, and how workers can learn to understand each others’ different needs
  • understand how agile working might address staff retention and satisfaction issues, including well-being and performance
  • manage the work life interface and the hidden challenges of working flexibly for different groups.

Find out more on the agiLab website.

Research projects

With the move to agile working arrangements for many in the NHS, worker groups may be experiencing quite different feelings and attitudes about what they (and their colleagues) are doing. Those working in clinical roles may be reporting that the blurring of boundaries between where, when and how they work has been accompanied by work intensification and an expectation to pick up the work of unavailable colleagues. Far from being ‘agile’, they may feel compelled to do more, and more often, as services struggle to recover from the pandemic. Those working in non-clinical roles may now be working in different settings and at different times (often off-site and from home). Whilst potentially more convenient, this may lead to feelings of isolation and abandonment, with concerns about the costs involved in sustaining their own work infrastructure within non-work locations. In this research project (funded by NHS Confederation), agiLab examines how clinical and non-clinical groups experience and perceive agile working, the emotions it conveys and its impact on attitudes. Findings will be used to help understand how best to organise and communicate agile working arrangements across the NHS.

This research project, funded by NHS Employers, used qualitative research methods to investigate the agile working experiences of workers from a lower socio-economic status (SES) background. NHS leaders and trade union colleagues were concerned that lower SES workers experienced more challenges than other workers to access and adjust to agile work. We interviewed lower SES workers, stakeholders and employers and found that ‘appreciation’ was a key factor that influenced the experiences of low SES workers engaged in agile work. Experience of appreciation was also found to be symbolic of the value and worth that low SES workers perceived in their roles. Workers reported that feeling appreciated was associated with feeling seen, being heard and significant others (e.g., governments and leaders) taking action.

Find out more on the NHS Employers website.

In this research project, funded by the NHS Leadership Academy, agiLab investigated how leaders can facilitate effective agile working for workers in the NHS. It was found that ‘professional intimacy’ (PI) is a key interpersonal resource that allows workers to feel heard, acknowledged, appreciated and cared for. It was also found that when leaders had PI with their teams, reciprocal trust, a sense of camaraderie and dedication, empathy and compassion were enjoyed. When PI was reported to be absent, workers reported issues with lower well-being, mental health difficulties, a sense of isolation, and intentions to quit.

You can find out more on the NHS Leadership Academy website.

Increasing the level of flexibility offered to employees at work has become a key priority for NHS organisations. However, NHS organisations have reported signs of rising tensions between clinical and non-clinical workers regarding their different agile working arrangements. This project sought to understand what these workers feel about the agile working arrangements of the ‘other’ group, and how this affects their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This can help to identify and understand whether, why and how clinical and non-clinical workers are experiencing conflict with each other, ultimately aiding in the development of action plans for dealing with and resolving such conflict. It was found that both clinical and non-clinical workers experienced more empathy in relation to clinical workers’ agile arrangements. This indicates that both groups of workers think that clinical workers may be suffering more and need more compassion. It was also found that empathy for the other group is lower, and that hostility is higher, when the other group expresses indifference about their agile working experience. This is concerning because indifference is a late-stage indicator of burnout, and it appears people withdraw their compassion and support when this is detected (ironically just at the stage when compassion and support is most needed). agiLab’s report also provides recommendations regarding indifference ‘red flag’ training.

You can find out more on the NHS Employers website.

Research outputs

Getting on top of work-email: A systematic review of 25 years of research to understand effective work-email activity

Emma Russell, Thomas W. Jackson, Marc Fullman and Petros Chamakiotis (2023), Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology

Governmentality Versus Community: The Impact of the COVID Lockdowns

Claire Wallace, Lucia Mytna-Kurekova, Margarita Leon, Jacqueline O’Reilly, Constantin Blome, Margarita Bussi, Becky Faith, Mark Finney, Janine Leschke, Chiara Ruffa, Emma Russell, Mi AhSchøyen, Matthias Thurer, Marge Unt and Rachel Verdin (2023), International Journal of Community Well-Being

Rural co-working: New network spaces and new opportunities for a smart countryside

Gary Bosworth, Jason Whalley, Anita Fuzi, Ian Merrell, Polly Chapman and Emma Russell (2023), Journal of Rural Studies

How rural coworking hubs can facilitate well-being through the satisfaction of key psychological needs

Ian Merrell, Anita Füzi, Emma Russell and Gary Bosworth (2022) Local Economy

Research identifies the four email management strategies that work… and why

Dr Emma Russell explores the four ‘super’ work-email actions identified in her research.

Is the ‘right to disconnect’ a red herring?

Right-to-disconnect policies are gaining traction but are they a distraction from the real problem—too much work?

Coworking in the country: sign of a healthy rural economy?

Can new models of hybrid-working act as a catalyst for the expansion of rural coworking spaces?

Do we really need another blog about digital futures at work?

The new Digit blog aims to bring a little light to the white heat of debates about how digital technologies are changing work.

agiLab Director

University of Sussex Business School

Research collaborators have included Deepali D’Mello, Hannah Tibbutt, Smadar Cohen-Chen, Jay McCloskey and Dr. Zahira Jaser.