Research Highlight Employee agility: what it entails and how to nurture it

Agility is touted as a key feature for organisations to weather the turbulences of our uncertain times. But scant attention has been paid to how agility is characterised at the employee level, where it appears to be a key factor in making teams and entire companies agile. Katharina Salmen and Marion Festing bring conceptual clarity to the issue and identify ways in which human resource practices can help foster agility.

There is no dearth of catchy expressions to label the uncertainty of our times, from the famous acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) describing our world in general to terms applying to more specific unpredictable events, like “black swans”. Throw in the sheer speed of technological change, the growing demands of fickle customers and many other turbulences, such as a certain crown-shaped virus that recently turned our lives upside down, and indeed, the inescapable conclusion is that the business environment is one very uncomfortable place.

Now, how should organizations face the challenges posed by uncertainty? The answer seems to be unanimous: by being agile. Agility is the new buzzword. 
Well, not that new. The US manufacturing sector embraced the idea of an agile strategy as far back as the early 1990s and the software development sector published its Agile Manifesto in 2001 (at the time one of the signatories did admit that it was a bit of a “mushy” statement).

But since then, has anyone defined what exactly agility is? Because nowadays “agile” seems to be a catch-all-phrase for just about every other practice, from design thinking to scrum, sprints and other lean start-up methods.

Why a consensus is needed about 'employee agility'

At the organisational level, practitioners and researchers seem to agree on the concept. It is the capacity to operate efficiently in a highly turbulent environment, not only reacting rapidly to change but also anticipating and seizing opportunities. And to achieve team and organisational agility, core employees' contributions are particularly valuable. “We use the term 'employee agility' because research shows that individual employees rather than the entire workforce, such as agile talents or other core employees, can make a major contribution to achieving organizational outcomes such as agility,” they explain.

But at the level of the workforce, there does not seem to exist a single, solid definition around which to work, as a duo of researchers noted in a recent article. “Despite its relevance and importance, indicated by the dramatic increase in publications since 2019 (…), consensus about what is meant by agility at the individual level has not yet been established in the literature, which is currently characterized by a great variety of definitions and perspectives on the phenomenon,” write ESCP Business School’s Katharina Salmen and Marion Festing.

“This is a challenge, because clearly and precisely defined constructs are the basic elements of a powerful theory, and theory in turn forms the foundation of scale development, thus making the construct measurable and usable in empirical research,” explain the researchers. So they decided to address this deficit, as well as the under-researched impact of human resource management.

A review of the existing literature to address shortcomings

They conducted a systematic literature review, searching among peer-reviewed articles published since 1991, and were able to identify 61 relevant contributions. Despite the dramatic increase in attention to agility on the employee level, they found little evidence of a common label or strong theoretical foundation. 

They noted that existing conceptualisations focus either on behaviour, ability, workforce architectures or combinations of the above, but the construct remained shaky. They did observe, however, “at least some agreement on certain elements of the definitions (like operating in uncertainty, newness and challenges, adaptability/responsiveness to change, speed, proactivity, resilience, and flexibility) and antecedents of employee agility (like cross-training and skills)” in a few studies. They also found a considerable variety of measures to assess employee agility (17 different scales in 30 relevant studies) and concluded that “most employee agility measures were not sufficiently validated”, due to “lack of extensive scale testing and repeated applications in different contexts”. 

We use the term 'employee agility' because research shows that individual employees rather than the entire workforce, such as agile talents or other core employees, can make a major contribution to achieving organizational outcomes such as agility.

To address these shortcomings, they proposed a theoretical framework positing employee agility as the individual answer to specific job demands in a dynamic environment.

Drawing upon the “Work Adjustment Theory” developed in the 1960s, which describes the fit between a person and their environment (P-E fit), the researchers argued in favour of a dynamic interpretation of the theory, adopting a process perspective: “In this vein, we explain employee agility as the favourable result of continuously coping with and aligning job demands generated by uncertain environments.” Job demands can be challenging (high volumes of work, responsibility...) or hindering (resource scarcity, interpersonal disputes...), as per the “work stressor” framework theorized by Podsakoff et al. Using insights from both these models, Festing and Salmen suggest that agile employees are able to align themselves continuously and cope with the job demands arising from an uncertain environment and thereby achieve a dynamic fit.

Which characteristics help achieve this agility? The first, they say, is learning agility, which allows employees to quickly and flexibly reshape their skill base. The second is innovative work behaviour (IWB), understood as “the intentional creation, introduction and application of new ideas”. In contrast to the findings of their literature review, the researchers thus write that employee agility can be defined through ability and behavioural perspectives, specifically learning agility and IWB: “Employee agility is characterized by the ability to perform fast learning processes within as well as across a variety of experiences inside and outside the organization, including flexible navigation between different ideas and their implementation in the organizational context.”

Flexibility-promoting HR practices

Last but not least, Festing and Salmen found that research had neglected the role of human resource management in fostering employee agility. So in their article, they identified human resource practices that support flexibility, and ultimately agility, by providing employees with resources such as training, rewards, empowerment, to continuously renew their abilities and behaviours in line with environmental dynamism (fast-changing customer or market requirements). Precisely, practices such as team-based work, job counselling, or information-sharing signal that their participation is valued and supports new ideas, thus contributing to IWB. 


Katharina Salmen Katharina Salmen Research assistant Chair of Human Resource Management and Intercultural Leadership, and PhD candidate at ESCP Business School (Berlin campus).
Marion Festing - ESCP Business School Marion Festing Professor of HRM and Intercultural Leadership, Academic Director of the Talent Management Institute and of the Excellence Centre of Intercultural Management at ESCP Business School (Berlin campus).