tb_admin 19 October 2017 News

The Beginner’s Guide to Agile Working

Chapter 1: What is agile working?

Agile working has been used by organisations for at least five years, but defining it can be a challenge given it’s such a broad principle. At its core, agile working can be understood as a tool for removing barriers so employees can work smarter and more efficiently. Characteristics of agile working include flexibility, autonomy, and a focus on activity and outcomes rather than the place of work.

Flexibility and minimal constraints

Agile working arrangements can include policies to allow employees to work when, where, and how they like. Reducing traditional limitations and barriers relating to task performance could be an example. Other examples include flexitime and telecommuting. For example, you might work in the office for a few hours before collaborating in a café with your teammate. You could then spend the rest of the day back at the office or at home.

Alternatively, you may have a flexible ‘working away from the office’ arrangement with your workplace. You could work in a local co-working hub, which is said to be the future workplace for entrepreneurs and small businesses, for a set amount of days each week, and then be present in your organisation’s primary offices for the remaining days.

Autonomy

Employee autonomy can be a common element of agile working strategies. Staff members are trusted with the flexibility to reach goals, quality standards, and milestones set by line managers. They tend to have far wider scope to choose how they reach given goals, limited only by compliance requirements and guidelines decided upon by management.

Efficient and quality outcome

Agile working strategies can also be seen in stated outcomes: the goal can be to optimise performance and provide best-in-class value in work outcomes. Desirable outcomes can include exceeding customer expectations, minimising costs, reducing physical office space needs, and driving sustainability. Responsiveness, efficiency, and effectiveness across the organisation can also be goals of agile working environments.

Communications and information technology tools

Agile work environments might make use of efficient communications, information technology tools and project management resources to enhance flexibility and productivity. These tools might include chat and collaboration tools like Slack, virtual whiteboards for sharing information, and IT booking systems for assigning hot desks and working spaces.

Focus on activity rather than place

Agile working strategies are focused on the activity or the work you do rather than the place you do it. This could mean an organisation will allow employees to work wherever they want as long as milestones and goals are reached.

Transformational goal

Agile working is intended to be transformational. By providing flexibility in regards to time (when), location (where), role (what you do), and source (who does it), you can drive stronger performance and quality outcomes.

Not prescriptive

Agile working can be understood by what it’s not. Unlike many workplace policies and rules, by nature agile working is not prescriptive. Its key principle is giving employees choice and flexibility in the dimensions of working, in order to empower employees to do better.

Supportive environmental design

Having the right technology, talent, and policies is essential to successful agile working, but so is the right environmental design. Rooms and spaces should be leveraged to support flexibility, efficiency, productivity, and collaboration. The goal is to provide employees with the right workspaces to support all types of activities.

For example, you might provide employees with individual hot desks in quiet areas for solitary work, along with conference rooms and open spaces for collaborative projects. The design of workspaces and offices should be adaptable enough to support changing working arrangements, according to your staff’s needs, throughout the day. In particular, the office space provided needs to be properly equipped to allow employees to use the space as efficiently and productively as possible.

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Chapter 2: What is the difference between flexible working and agile working?

Agile working strategies differ from flexible working arrangements in terms of aims, drivers, and scope. Flexible working is usually concerned only with working time and patterns, and the location of work, and so it is limited in focus. The scope of agile working is far greater.

The two also differ in objective. Flexible working is usually implemented specifically to improve conditions for workers, while agile working takes into account business performance considerations as well as employee conditions. Agile tends to be more focused on business performance outcomes than on employee working arrangements.

Individual vs business-wide implementation

While flexible working is usually negotiated on a one-on-one basis, agile working strategies are likely implemented across the board in an organisation. For example, an organisation with flexible working policies could invite employees to apply individually for the option to work from home one day a week, or to work longer hours one day to make up for half a day’s work one day a week. They would then need to negotiate with their line manager to determine the specifics of the arrangement.

In an agile working workplace, however, employees are subject to the same agile working rules and conditions. Employees don’t need to obtain specific permission from management before they take advantage of agile working principles. For example, any employee is allowed to book their hot desk of choice, determine their own working schedule from day to day, and work at home or at the local café as long as they hit their targets. While flexible working is an exception to the rule, agile working is the general rule in the organisation.

Goals and outcomes

Another vital distinction, as noted above, is that agile working is focused on business outcomes while flexible work is concerned with employee well-being and work-life balance. Agile working is therefore broader in focus, and flexible work concerned mostly with the employee. Agile working might use technology tools, along with employee choice in the “whens” and “wheres” of work, to achieve better business outcomes. Enhanced productivity, lower overhead costs through reduced office-space requirements, and higher motivation might be some of the outcomes.

The goal of flexible work is usually centred on employee well-being and convenience. A successful flexible-working arrangement would be measured by employee satisfaction only. By contrast, agile working success is measured by business outcomes, whether this includes revenue growth, higher profits, overhead savings, and/or productivity.

Implementation

While flexible working is easily implemented, agile working represents a completely different style of working requiring total commitment from employees and management. Flexible change might involve only changes to working time and patterns, and changes to work location. By contrast, agile working could change everything from employee schedules and work locations to collaboration methods and culture.

It’s easy to implement flexible working; all you need is the right technology tools to allow for remote work and a calendar to track employee schedules. With agile working, however, you’ll need new workplace designs, schedule management, and cultural change. The barriers to implementation are much higher and you’ll need stringent planning to make implementation a success.

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Chapter 3: What are the elements/drivers of agile working?

Agile working has three key elements: employee discretion, performance goals and standards, and physical space. Organisations can support their employees by providing them with the right technology hardware and software tools, and by providing them with a supportive physical working environment.

Employee discretion: when, where, how, and what

Agile working gives employee’s discretion – subject only to compliance requirements and any rules imposed by management – on when, where, and how they work.

  • When – Employees working in agile organisations choose when they work. Depending on the organisation’s rules, they might choose to work three days a week. As long as they meet their performance goals and work standards, they might be free to clock in and out as they choose. Allowing employees to working when they choose to can drive higher productivity and better outcomes for teams and the organisation.
  • Where – Agile working, like flexible work, includes a location component. Employees might be free to choose where they wish to work, such as from home, in the office with the team, or from a local café/co-working space. This flexibility of location could lead to higher productivity as long as the correct procedures are in place to monitor workflow.
  • How – Employees might be allowed to determine how they work. They can work individually, have discretion to do research as they choose, and decide on their own work schedule and processes as long as they reach the stated targets.

Performance goals and standards

Agile working strategies are often highly defined by the performance goals and standards. Employees have considerable flexibility and autonomy – as long as they reach these goals and output standards. This could mean teams and employees can work whenever they like and clock fewer hours as long as they reach the projected sales or output targets.

Physical space

The physical environment is a crucial element of an agile working arrangement. The working environment should support productivity and space efficiency. While typical offices allocate space based on seniority or hierarchy, agile workplaces concentrate on the efficient use of space that supports both collaborative working and concentration. Such an environment is likely to have these key elements of an agile office:

  • Open plan – Open plan areas break down structural barriers of communication, and support collaboration. They’re also space efficient, allowing the organisation to save more on overheads and real estate.
  • Breakout – Breakout zones are multifunctional spaces where you can collaborate in teams, relax, eat lunch, and set up ad hoc meetings with groups.
  • Quiet zones – Agile working environments usually don’t have private offices, so quiet zones allow individuals to complete contemplative, quiet work without distraction. Ideally these are located close to open plan areas so workers can shift easily between the two.
  • Touchdown – Touchdown spaces are excellent for staff who are in the office intermittently. They’re areas designed for quick touchdown-style work, like answering emails or quick tasks. Touchdown areas are usually integrated with breakout areas.
  • Resources – Resource and storage areas are critical for agile working environments. These areas contain essential resources like team files, printers, copiers, stationery, private lockers, and recycling bins. Setting these resources away from working spaces can reduce noise and distraction.

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Chapter 4: What kind of business does agile working suit?

Agile working can be suitable for any type of organisation, but service businesses could benefit the most from agile working. Some industries, such as retail, manufacturing, healthcare and nursing, might not be able to implement agile working to the degree a pure-services organisation might be able to. However, you could probably introduce elements of agile working into most jobs. Organisations such as BT (telecommunications), PwC (advisory services), and EC Harris (engineering consulting) have successfully used agile to improve their working arrangements and workplaces.

Beyond industry, organisations suited for agile working arrangements can include businesses that are looking for ways to reduce overhead costs and improve productivity. If you can introduce activity-based workplace design to your business, you could use agile working in your office. Businesses will likely need to introduce agile by department, operation or level rather than across the organisation, depending on the functionalities, business goals, and requirements of the department concerned.

When deciding whether your business could be suited to agile, it’s useful to look at the roles in your departments and operations. You could have some roles that are more location independent while others are more time independent. Regardless of your industry, these roles could benefit from agile working arrangements, where you provide staff members with flexibility on time or location or both.

Location-independent roles

Roles including researchers, CEOs, writers, and artists tend to be location-independent roles. A CEO can direct their company by working with line managers while they are travelling around the world. A researcher can conduct their research from home, on field, and in the lab. These types of occupations are also likely to be time independent. This is because their job inputs tend not to require fixed working hours.

Other location-independent roles include telephone salespeople, call-centre staff, and IT support crew. Due to technology tools, these roles can be completed at home and outside of the office. Some organisations might prefer these roles to be remote because of the resulting overhead and property savings. However, these roles tend to be highly time dependent. Call-centre workers need to be available during fixed hours, and telephone salespeople tend to work fixed hours as well. IT support staff are usually allocated shifts when they’re available for troubleshooting queries.

Time-independent roles

If you have time-independent roles in your organisation, you could also benefit from agile working strategies. Examples of time-independent roles include lawyers, plumbers, van drivers, and social workers. These occupations tend to allow the worker discretion in the hours they work. Plumbers can determine their own working hours, and lawyers can choose when they consult with clients. However, these jobs are often also location dependent, which means it’s a challenge to provide these employees with freedom in deciding where they work.

Roles unsuitable for agile working

Roles unsuitable for agile working arrangements are both time-dependent and location-dependent roles. Examples include sales and retail assistants, wait staff in food services, teachers, and firefighters. Not only do these roles require fixed hours; they also require the employee to be in a fixed location during those hours. If you have roles like these in your organisation, you’ll find it challenging to implement agile working for these staff members.

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Chapter 5: Benefits and challenges of agile working for organisations

Any organisation seeking to implement agile working arrangements will need to weigh up the potential benefits and assess possible challenges. Benefits of agile working include increased efficiency, innovation, and attracting and retaining talent.

  • Efficiency and responsiveness – Efficiency is the overarching goal of agile working. By providing your team with discretion and autonomy, you aim to boost responsiveness, effectiveness, and flexibility. This can translate into better business performance, higher service and product quality, and enhanced customer satisfaction. Since staff are free to make changes to the way they work, the organisation can become more agile as barriers to dynamism are broken down.
  • Innovation – Staff with more freedom to find their own solutions could generate more ideas and creative ways to resolve challenges. Teams can be motivated to be more creative and dynamic if they can determine the conditions of their work. In turn, this can result in more innovative products and services, and more successful business outcomes.
  • Retain talent – Removing barriers to creativity and giving staff more freedom over working conditions can lead to higher job satisfaction. This can help you retain talented staff members for longer, which will help you save on recruitment costs.
  • Cost savings – Agile working environments could make use of space more effectively. Because no one has dedicated offices or workstations, work spaces are “on demand” and used on an as-needed basis. Staff who work at home or on a mobile basis won’t leave their offices empty for much of the time. By reducing the amount of real estate required, you save on property, furniture, and running costs.
  • Productivity – Agile working encompasses flexible-working features, and research shows flexible workers are happier, more productive, and less stressed than others. In an agile working environment, organisations can drive stronger productivity and in turn business performance.

While agile working comes with many potential benefits, these need to be balanced against the possible challenges. Challenges of agile working can include effecting cultural change, staff resistance, and managing performance.

  • Cultural changes – Agile working strategies need employee and management buy-in to be effective. You’ll need to ensure a level of cultural change that has people re-thinking how they work. It can take time and practice for employees to leverage their agile-working freedom positively, for the organisation’s bottom line.
  • Quality of work – Since direct supervision is limited in agile working, you might have inconsistent quality of work. This is linked to enforcing working policies and performance management, and your line managers might need to have strategies to counter inconsistent quality.
  • Fair policies – Enforcing fair agile work policies across all staffing levels can be another challenge. While staff are supposed to be given a considerable level of freedom, this can be impractical in certain jobs like administration or call-centre. This challenge could be overcome by introducing agile working in only certain departments or roles.
  • Performance management – Since employees are given discretion to determine how they perform their jobs, it can be a major challenge to manage and enforce performance outcomes. Organisations will need to have creative strategies for ensuring staff maintain high performance levels, or they might need to implement agile working selectively. Generally agile working is best suited to organisations with high trust levels and a strong performance-driven culture.

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Chapter 6: Benefits and challenges of agile working for employees

It’s not only organisations who benefit from agile; agile working can be a win-win proposition for businesses and their employees. More freedom, higher productivity, and better work-life balance could be some of the outcomes for individuals and team members in agile-working environments. However, a high level of trust and performance-focused culture is more conducive to achieving great results from agile.

  • Freedom and discretion – Employees have more freedom and discretion to use their job-specific knowledge to work how and when they choose. This can reduce outdated practices and other unnecessary processes and rules that may be limiting efficiency. It can also translate to higher productivity and job satisfaction if you can decide when and how projects can be completed.
  • Utilisation of skills – Staff members have discretion to use their skills and apply knowledge as they choose. Because they have on-the-ground knowledge, this freedom can allow them to apply their skills more effectively, as opposed to line managers who don’t have on-the-ground awareness of the details. Instead of micromanaging tasks, employees decide how to complete tasks by applying their knowledge of their skills and designing the process without line management input.
  • Job satisfaction – With greater freedom and autonomy to use their skills as they choose, employees can enjoy higher job satisfaction. Flexible schedules and the flexibility to work when and how they choose can also contribute to higher job satisfaction. Job satisfaction can be linked to work-life balance as well as high productivity, discretion to apply skills as appropriate, and enhanced engagement.
  • Productivity – With flexibility to work how and when they choose, employees can enjoy fewer distractions, better focus, stronger concentration, higher levels of creativity, and better use of their skills. Because unnecessary barriers or red tape in processes are removed, team members can feel more satisfied and be more productive.
  • Empowerment – Greater employee empowerment can be an outcome of agile working policies. Since staff members have discretion to determine the details of how they work, they can feel more connected to what they do. A stronger sense of ownership of the role can result, and this can be linked to engagement and productivity. The empowered employee knows they are responsible for job outcomes and takes charge because they are not being micromanaged to complete the task.
  • Work-life balance and time savings – Agile-working employees could enjoy a higher level of work-life balance and save more time. Instead of wasting time on a daily commute, they might be able to save hours each week by having the discretion to work several days a week from home. They can enjoy a flexible schedule that allows them to fulfil parental obligations while still maintaining high productivity and output, such as working more hours three days a week and cutting back on the remaining two days.
  • Higher engagement – An agile working environment can boost employee engagement. Because employees feel trusted with higher autonomy and decision-making power in their roles, they feel more responsible and accountable for delivering outcomes. The sense of ownership could result in higher engagement, higher productivity, and even higher team and organisation morale.

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Chapter 7: What tools/technologies are required for an agile working environment?

Having the right technology tools can be instrumental in agile-working success. The tools you use to effect and manage your agile-working strategy can range from cloud services to swipe cards for space access.

  • Cloud services – Cloud services can provide a secure way to collaborate and do remote work regardless of physical location. Instead of hosting your own server, you can outsource work platforms and pay a fixed subscription fee while supporting your agile-working teams with accessible, real-time platforms. From chat programs and databases to workflow management and project management platforms, cloud services are an essential tool for agile-working strategies.
  • Physical space access – Physical space access tools like ID card swipes allow you to track, monitor, and manage access to different types of spaces in your organisation. You can monitor how much a type of space is being used and allocate more property to that category if necessary.
  • Video communication – Video communication platforms can help your employees collaborate regardless of their location. From setting up ad hoc teleconferencing meetings to the weekly team meeting, your video platform supports agile working because it lets you work around varying time and location schedules. Free tools like Skype and FaceTime present low cost alternatives to commuting, interstate travel, and transport and accommodation costs.
    These platforms can also be used to reduce client-facing meetings, which will reduce time lost for commute, the amount of meeting rooms needed in the office, and also increase productivity.
  • Connectivity – Connectivity in the office, on the go, from home, and elsewhere can be conducive to agile working. Whether it’s nbn™, Wi-Fi around the office or mobile broadband, fast and reliable connectivity is a fundamental driver of working when and how you choose. Organisations wanting to support staff in agile-working practices should review connectivity access for those working from home as well as at the office. In addition to this, the Internet of Things is becoming more prevalent than ever, and your business will need to be prepared for the new technologies and business practices likely to evolve from this phenomenon.
    An essential part of the issue of connectivity is the need for seamless desk connectivity. Your employees must be able to move to any space in the office or at home and know that they can connect quickly and easily to the desk. This means that you will require a standardised desk connectivity system across all locations where employees may be working.
  • Laptops and tablets – Mobile devices like laptops and tablets allow workers to hot desk and work anywhere in the office. Rather than fixed-location desktops that aren’t mobile, battery-powered laptop computers and tablets support work-anywhere strategies, so employees can be mobile around the office. However, as in the above point, this requires a seamless desk connectivity solution such as those offered by Targus.
  • Virtual private networks – Virtual private networks allow businesses to further secure their data. It can be vital to have mobile and work-at-home employees use virtual private networks if you’re dealing with sensitive client data or confidential information. The benefit of these secure networks include employees not having to back up data or carry data around.
  • Instant messaging – Instant chat platforms like Slack can support collaboration and communication between staff members, in teams, and between management and employee. These collaborative enterprise platforms can be an essential part of your IT toolset. They can be used to break down communication barriers, and they present a low-cost way to offer employees multiple communication channels beyond email.
  • Virtual environments – Virtual chat rooms, whiteboards, and shared calendars are common tools used by organisations to support better collaboration and communication. In the agile-working environment, these virtual tools give employees more channels for staying connected, regardless of their schedule and location.
  • Specialist-purpose apps – Specialist-purpose apps can be helpful depending on your industry and depending on individual roles. For example, your mobile employees may need to have client information on their smartphones. Providing an app ensures timely and easy access to this information on the road.

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Chapter 8: What goals will you achieve with agile working?

Agile working can empower your organisation to achieve goals ranging from staff retention and productivity to lower costs and staff satisfaction. These positive outcomes can contribute to a stronger culture and healthier bottom line. As long as you plan for your agile-working strategy and stay aware of the potential challenges, agile working could help you achieve all the common organisational goals.

Improved bottom line

Higher productivity and efficiency, space savings, and lower property overheads are some of the elements of agile working that can contribute to an improved bottom line. Whether your organisational goal is to grow profits and boost revenue, agile working arrangements can support them. Research suggests businesses can save tens of millions of dollars with agile working arrangements such as desk sharing. PwC, for example, believes co-location practices and flexible working has allowed it to increase profits by 15%. EC Harris also accounts for a jump in profit to flexible-working arrangements, with their net profit margin leaping by 13%.

More engaged staff members, higher customer satisfaction, and better utilisation of team skills are outcomes that can also directly lead to a stronger bottom line. Agile working can drive flexibility and innovation, both of which are outcomes that contribute to a stronger bottom line. Research also suggests that flexible working – which is encompassed in agile working – is associated with stronger overall organisational performance.

Productivity could be a driver of a stronger bottom line. For example, surveys of employees suggests as much as five productive hours a week could be gained if they didn’t have to commute. This could translate to thousands of dollars saved in productivity each year. Employees could be as much as 20% more productive with agile-working arrangements.

Corporate-social responsibility

Consumers value businesses that behave ethically, and ethical business could have a most positive brand reputation if they demonstrate they achieve social- and community-related goals. Agile-working practices are also linked to reduced carbon footprints for individuals and organisations, which means it has social and environmental benefits. This can enhance your company’s credibility and corporate-social-responsibility reputation.

Business continuity

Business continuity is an ongoing goal of organisations. Disruptions, whether due to technology or other factors, can impact revenue growth, sales, and morale. Agile working can be supportive of business continuity, allowing you to recover quickly, react flexibly, and respond creatively to unexpected events and situations.

Best-in-class talent and reputation

Your organisation’s most valuable resource is your staffing team. Agile working can allow you to retain valued employees and attract the best-in-class talent for your industry. Being known as an organisation that’s committed to quality and offers staff flexibility and space to be innovative can support staff retention. PwC, for example, believes its flexible-working arrangements have driven down its turnover rate, resulting in just 12% turnover employee rates in one year.

Along with allowing you to stay competitive in the market, retaining valuable staff members allows you to avoid the considerable costs of turnover while building a reputation that boosts your brand. You’ll minimise the costs associated with losing valuable knowledge and talent, and you’ll be able to save time and expense on conducting recruitment campaigns.

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Chapter 9: What impact could agile working have on your organisation?

Agile working can impact your enterprise in a broad range of positive ways.

  • Property costs – Successfully implementing agile working could see you driving down property costs from rental to running costs. Offices that are used only occasionally can be eliminated.
  • Consolidate and centralise – An agile working strategy can help you consolidate disparate locations and centralise your operations. While you might have needed three locations before introducing agile working, with hot desking and other space-saving arrangements you might be able to centralise your operations into the one location. This can represent large savings for your firm.
  • Energy savings and lower running costs – Eliminating unnecessary or underused office space can help you save a significant amount of money on energy costs and other costs such as water. With staff working from home and outside the office, the reduced running costs can be considerable.
  • Staff performance – As mentioned above, agile working can boost productivity, engagement, motivation, and performance. Better staff performance can lead to improved bottom line, greater client satisfaction, and higher revenue and profits.
  • Collaboration – For businesses in certain industries such as advisory services, being able to collaborate effectively can be central to getting the job done. Agile working can reduce barriers to communication, allow employees to collaborate when and how they like, and enhance joint projects and work. For example, they could form ad hoc, temporary teams to achieve project goals quickly.
  • Dynamism – Agile working can support creativity and responsiveness in individuals and teams, which can in turn make your business more responsive. If you can react more quickly to changing market conditions, for example, you can be more successful at staying ahead of the competition.
  • Cultural change – Better staff engagement, greater dynamism, and higher profits can result in a positive cultural shift for your organisation. In this way, agile working can boost morale and drive a successful cultural change.

However, it’s also important to keep in mind potentially negative impacts of agile working if your agile-working strategy is undertaken unsuccessfully.

  • Unreliable work quality – Without effective management, you could end up seeing uneven work quality from your employees. Providing too much freedom to employees who end up abusing the trust can result in poor quality work. One way to resolve this could be to screen employees and teams for agile-working implementation before you give them the freedom to engage in agile working.
  • Poor management – Agile working can be challenging to manage. Line managers are still responsible for performance outcomes but are required to give employees the discretion to choose the specifics of their role. This can result in both poor performance outcomes and frustrated line managers. To overcome this, consider providing managers with the right training and framework to help on board employees to agile working. Make sure employees buy into the new working environment before holding line managers accountable.
  • Employee disengagement – If employees can’t sold on the benefits of agile working, they could become disengaged in their role and fail to reach performance goals. This risk could be countered by an effective management strategy as you transition to agile working.

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Chapter 10: How to implement in your organisation?

Making the leap into agile working requires a detailed plan and the right tools. Whether you’re implementing it for a team, a whole department, or your whole organisation, your agile-working initiative should be designed to meet the unique requirements of your organisation. Give your staff the right technology tools to support work processes and collaboration. Reduce ambiguity by defining performance standards. Make sure you have management buy-in across the department or team, and guide staff with policies.

  • Measurement metrics – Setting measurement metrics pre-implementation can allow you to track your performance. These might be quantity (sales and revenue) and/or quality metrics, but they should be clearly defined so you can easily monitor outcomes.
  • Technology tools – As mentioned above, support your staff with the right technology tools. If they’ll be hot desking, ensure the Wi-Fi network is stable and secure. If they’re working from home or on the road some of the time, a virtual private network can be helpful. Cloud services can help with collaboration and seamless transition from one physical location to the next.
    Desk connectivity tools such as universal docking solutions, power and USB-C hubs will all help to enable seamless connections to the network, systems, and company tools for optimal employee productivity.
  • Performance standards – Agile-working environments can appear unstructured and ambiguous at the start. Guide staff by providing them with definitive performance standards and working policies. Manage employee expectations proactively to ensure consistent quality and performance.
  • Management buy-in – Obtain management buy-in from the start. Your managers will play a critical role in the shift to agile working, so support them with tools and training to help them manage the change.

As you shift to an agile-working environment, you’ll need to facilitate the organisation’s conversation about transitioning to agile working. As the organisation’s leadership, you’ll be helping your managers with overseeing the change, and they in turn will need to know how to manage employee expectations.

A Guide to USB-C

Your USB port and cable are likely one of your most widely used connection tools. From charging phones and transferring content to connecting printers and computer accessories, the USB is an essential connection cross-platform technology that’s used by Mac, Windows, Android, and all other operating systems.

The humble USB port has come a long way since its first inception over two decades ago, and USB-C or Type C is the latest version supporting the fastest USB 3.1 standard*. This latest generation USB standard has been described as the ‘one port to rule them all’ and, as USB-C is generally recognised as the standard of the future, it’s well worth getting to know this new technology better.

*

As of January 2017

What is USB and USB-C?

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, which is an industry standard term for short-distance digital data communications. USB-C cables (and ports) reflect the latest connector standards as agreed upon and developed by the USB Implementers’ Forum (USB-IF), a group of industry leaders such as Apple, Intel, Dell, and Belkin. Over time, USB-C will likely replace the previous types – which include USB-A, USB-B and USB Mini-B – to become the standard.

What is a USB-C cable?

The USB-C cable can be plugged into any USB-C port on your computer, smartphone or other device to charge the device or to connect and transfer files with another device. If you don’t have a USB-C port to connect the device, you can use an adaptor to ensure your USB-C cable can be plugged into your notebook computer or smartphone, and then use your USB-C cable as you would any other USB cable.

To charge your phone or device using an USB-C cable, you just need to have a compatible wall charger into which you can plug your USB-C cable for power.

In short, a USB-C cable is just an updated type of your current USB-B or USB-A cable. USB-C cables and ports have been used in smartphones and tablets since 2015.

What is a USB-C port?

USB-C ports are commonly found on notebooks, desktop workstations, network adaptors, broadband and wireless modems, printers, and a whole range of other devices. These are simply outlets that let you use USB-C cables to connect to other devices and gadgets or power sockets, whether it’s for expansion, power charging, file-transfer purposes, or some other function.

For example, the latest notebooks computers most likely have more than one USB-C port to allow you to connect multiple peripherals such as keyboards, mouse, printers, and so on. A USB port can facilitate wireless USB technology; for example, you might have a receiver that you plug into the USB-C port to connect a wireless mouse.

USB-C ports are much smaller than USB-B ports. At just 0.84 cm by 0.26cm (compared to 1.4 cm by 0.65 cm for USB-B ports), the USB-C standard allows for a much smaller, compact port. The compact size of this new standard allows technology device manufacturers to design smaller and thinner phones, notebooks, and other gadgets.

What can USB-C be used for?

USB-C can be used for anything ranging from connecting computer peripherals such as printers, mouse and keyboards to transferring data, and charging gadgets and batteries. Smartphones, tablets and game consoles can integrate USB-C ports and cables for power charging, and for expansion or connection purposes.

Is USB-C the same as micro USB?

While the USB-C looks very similar to micro USBs, it’s actually a different type of connector standard, with USB-C ports and cable plugs being slightly thicker. There are other differences of note. Unlike micro USB and earlier generation USB cables, the USB-C cable does not have an up or down orientation, so you no longer have to worry about checking whether you’ve got it the right way up, or be concerned about flipping it the right way when you’re ready to plug in your phone for charging. Another convenient feature is that both ends of the cable are exactly the same, so there’s no more worrying about getting the right end of the cable the first time around either.

The popularity of USB, and USB-C’s potential

USB and the latest type of USB-C have been adopted by the masses, probably because they allow for much faster data transfer than older technologies, such as serial or parallel ports. And while FireWire and Ethernet connections can support faster data transfer than USB, these standards currently do not yet support power across the wire, and wide adoption has not happened for these connections standards.

Since USB is already the most common notebook port and connector by far, it’s likely that USB-C, by virtue of being the latest version of USB, will see the same widespread adoption. In fact, there are many signs that it’s already being widely adopted. For example, Apple in its 2015 release of the 12-inch MacBook that had been designed for the device to have just one port for charging, video output, data, and peripherals – and the port was USB-C. Since then its MacBooks have added more USB-C ports. Other devices such as the HTC 10, LG G5 and Google Pixel all use USB-C ports. And new smartphone manufacturers such as OnePlus are already incorporating USB-C ports into their phones.

How does USB-C differ from the earlier types?

As mentioned earlier, there is no up or down side to the USB plug and both ends of the cable are the same, which make USB-C cables and ports more convenient to use. But USB-C is also smaller, thinner, and lighter than the other USB types; and compliant devices will typically support faster speed transfers – the USB 3.1 standard.

Other differences include the fact you’ll be able to charge devices more quickly than with previous USB types, and you’ll most likely be able to support higher quality audio and video as well, due to the faster speeds.

USB type versus USB version

We often hear about specifications such as USB 3.1 and USB 2.0, so how do these differ to USB-C or USB-B? The former refers to version, whereas the latter refers to type.

  • USB type – Generally speaking, the USB type – USB-C or USB-B – refers to the physical shape and actual wiring of the plugs and ports.
  • USB version – The USB version or standard typically reflects the speed and functionality of the USB cable. For example, USB 3.1 is faster than USB 2.0 in terms of data transfer speeds.

The later the USB version, the faster the data transfer speed.

  • USB 1.1 – This early incarnation of USB was also known as Full Speed USB, and it supported a maximum transfer speed of 12 Mbps.
  • USB 2.0 – Also known as High-Speed USB, USB 2.0 compliant devices support a maximum speed of 480 Mbps.
  • USB 3.0 – USB 3.0 is also known as SuperSpeed USB, and can deliver a maximum speed of 5 Gbps or 5,120 Mpbs.
  • USB 3.1 – As the newest USB version, USB 3.0 is also known as USB 3.0 Gen 2, and compliant devices will offer a maximum speed of 10 Gbps, which in effect is a doubling of the speed offered by USB 3.0 compliant devices. While the default version for USB-C is USB 3.1, USB 3.1 can exist in older USB types, so keep in mind that just because a device is USB 3.1 compliant, doesn’t necessarily mean it uses USB-C port or cable.

Note that later USB versions are usually backward compatible with earlier versions. And just to make things more complicated, there are also USB power delivery levels to consider, but this is usually reflected in the USB version. This means USB 3.1, the most current version, can deliver greater power output (of up to 20 volts and 5 amps) than older versions.

Bi-directional power

If you’re not already convinced of the advantages of USB-C, then you will be when you’re made aware of its bi-directional-power capabilities. In plain language, this means the cable can be used to send or receive power, and a peripheral device can be used to charge a host device, so you could use your phone to charge a tablet or another phone, for example. Convenience aside, what this could mean also is that you end up with just a few USB-C cables for all your charging, expansion, and transfer requirements, rather than the multitude of cables you probably have now.

Alternatives and competitors to USB-C and USB

It’s hard to imagine a world without USB’s ubiquitous cables and ports, but USB has had its share of challengers. There have been various competitors or alternatives to USB and USB-C in the past, and these include Thunderbolt, Lightning, and FireWire. However, none of these have ever achieved USB’s widespread adoption – at least not yet.

FireWire was a standard used mainly by Apple starting in the late ‘90s. FireWire’s advantages included the fact that it allowed you to easily connect dozens of devices using just the one port, and it could be used to transfer data in both directions at the same time, unlike USB. FireWire also tended to be faster than the USB standards that were being set at the time. However, FireWire was more expensive to implement and Apple initially required licence fees to be paid to use the standard.

Thunderbolt is mostly used in Apple’s computers, though it’s developed and backed by Intel. Ultra-fast and also supporting bi-directional data transfers, Thunderbird continues to be developed, but it probably won’t ever achieve the ubiquity and mainstream adoption that USB has. Like FireWire, it’s more expensive for manufacturers to implement, since additional chips and controllers have to be used.

The most likely challenges for USB going forward are probably wireless technologies that can support what USB does today. That means wireless data transfers, power charging, and connecting of devices. Many options already exist in this area, and they range from cloud services and near field communications, to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. However, current wireless technologies probably aren’t yet a serious threat to USB simply because of speed: even USB 2.0 is faster and more reliable than many wireless technologies.

And as for power charging, while there are wire-free charging standards being developed, there are many competing technologies and many of these chargers themselves use USB. Given all this, it’s likely that USB-C will dominate the port and connectors landscape in the coming years, just as previous USB types have in the past.

Concerns and possible issues

Some concerns have been raised about the smaller design of USB-C and how it could cause the cable to be more fragile in everyday use. Another possible issue is the USB-C standard being somewhat unregulated. The difficulties of regulating the standard has led to poor quality and even dangerous accessories on the market, which have resulted in damage to devices when connected. Amazon, for example, has banned certain USB-C cables from being sold in its stores and specified that only compliant products are sold.

The USB-IF has released a new protocol in response to these issues, and it remains to be seen whether the new protocol – one that outlines a way for devices to authenticate USB-C devices or chargers before accepting data or power – will be widely implemented.

Should I buy USB-C adapters and hubs?

If you’re wondering whether you need to go out and buy physical adapters and hubs to allow USB-C-only devices to connect with devices that use earlier versions of USB, the answer is probably not just yet. The widespread adoption of USB-C that will likely take place will happen gradually, so you’ll have plenty of time to switch. And as it is likely to occur incrementally, you’ll probably need to start buying adapters only when you buy a new device and find that it’s not compatible with your other devices.

Similarly, there’s no need to make the presence or absence of USB-C ports a key priority when shopping around for products unless you want to achieve something with your devices that only USB-C can help you achieve. It’s probably the case that larger devices such as computers will include both USB-C and older USB types for a few years more, thereby allowing a gradual transition for consumers. Google’s Chromebook Pixel, for example, features both the new USB-C ports and the older USB types.

Preparing for adopting USB-C

Now that you know everything about the upcoming USB-C standard, you’re well prepared for the widespread adoption of this standard that’s likely to occur in the coming years. What’s important to note from all this is that you should be keeping an eye out for the USB version on any new devices you purchase, whether it’s a new smartphone, notebook, or other device. When shopping around, check that cables are included or that you have compatible cables or adapters that you can use. Doing this can help you save time and adjust to the switch to USB-C in the market, which is likely to be gradual.

If you’re looking for a high quality USB-C product, look no further than the range provided by Targus. Our business accessories are designed for the modern worker, featuring everything from stylishly ergonomic laptop shoulder bags to device docking stations and privacy screens.

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