Moving at the speed of business by creating an agile workforce

A checkout line at a grocery store.
As the former vice president of operations for Ukrop's Super Markets, Robert Kelley was able to see firsthand the benefits of incorporating the agile workforce. (Getty Images)

It’s a bird ... it’s a plane ... it’s ... the speed at which the business environment is moving. Gone are the days of hierarchy and maintaining the status quo. If you are not on the very cutting edge of your field, you are already falling behind.

Where then does that leave employees? More and more, businesses are moving to the latest trend, an agile workforce, allowing employees more creative liberties and say in the direction of the business.

This structure is a nontraditional system that is identified by its specific makeup. “Knowledge workers” with specialized skills and expertise are at the root of the agile workforce. 

Robert Kelley, Ed.D., assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business and founder and president of Pure Culture Consulting, understands this business model well. As the former vice president of operations for Ukrop's Super Markets, he was able to see firsthand the benefits of incorporating the agile workforce. 

Kelley sat down recently with VCU News to explain the agile workforce. 

How do you define agile workforce?

When I think of agile workforce, I’m thinking of a workforce that can be deployed and shifted to deal with external demands of the marketplace. If we [use the example of] General Motors, in their early years General Motors was highly innovative and then lost that core competency, but still did a pretty good job with what we call incremental innovation, little changes here and there. Each year a new model came out, but it really wasn’t until the world of digital exploded that automobiles started driving more innovation as they created the connected car, the car that was connected to the internet as well. 

But this next generation is going to be incredibly powerful with the automation and autonomy of cars. One reason for the General Motors strike is how traditional autoworkers will be leveraged and deployed. Can they go from a traditional manufacturing automobile line to one that will be very different when cars require battery power and not traditional gasoline power? The manufacturing process is going to be different and the ability to have an agile workforce is, “Let me go ahead and leverage this person or these groups of people who are working on a traditional manufacturing line, retrain them, then leverage them over in a new plant.” That is agility. 

So agile workforce, to me, is about the continuous building of your employees’ skills to anticipate or respond to external changes in the marketplace. 

Is there an industry that this agile workforce can benefit more than others? 

No, just about every industry [benefits]. If we [look at] the Ukrop’s model back in the late ’80s, the traditional supermarket wasn’t too sophisticated. Part of the traditional model — the female of the family of the ’50s and ’60s — was blown up in the ’80s, when the men and women partners were working together. What happened when they started both working was they became time starved. They didn’t have time to cook. When they left for work in the morning, only about 13% of couples knew what they were having for dinner that night. Their alternatives were crummy frozen-food dinners or fast food. It was at that time that Jim and Bob Ukrop saw that statistic and saw an opportunity to start the prepared foods that we started in 1987 and 1988.

As a result, that changed the format of our stores. Stores had cafes in them. They had a grill, it had someone slinging a pizza, it had people frying chicken. The produce department had people cutting up produce for the salad bar. To convert a business model that was traditionally stocking pork and beans, stocking soup, stocking cornflakes, stocking charcoal and moving it to a force that grilled, made pizzas, fried chicken and all the other things that I just said, your workforce is responding to external trends to the marketplace. The agile aspect of that is, “OK, you’re stocking shelves over here, but now we want you to grill up burgers or chicken, etc.” The ability to train and move that person over is a definition of agility, or an agile workforce, from a strategic standpoint.

If I am an employee and I am being asked to change how much do I have to put into to this effort to change? What’s the reward I get if I do it and, by the way, how important is that reward to me? Agility and agile workforce is all about reinvention.

What effect does the agile workforce have on employees? 

Let me give you another example. When Walmart came to Richmond, they said they were going to be the nation’s largest food retailer by the year 2000. They brought seven supercenters to Richmond. As a business, [Ukrop’s] had to figure out if we were just going to sit there and take it or were we going to respond. We felt like we needed to respond. The store in Mechanicsville was designed to deal with the trend of couples needing prepared foods for their dinners. The next issue of agility was Walmart coming. We had to borrow $100 million to build new stores and upgrade older stores to deal with Walmart coming in. If you think of it as an invading army, we had to shore up our defenses. In order to do that, we had to deepen our competitive advantage.

We not only had the $100 million debt to pay back, we also had the interest expense to pay back. In order to do that, we had to get sharper and better in terms of our operating process. We had to learn how to make that fried chicken with greater attention to details, no waste. We had to figure out how to serve customers on the front end faster. We had to make sure we were not letting people steal our meat, and then sell it. We had to learn how to become operationally excellent.

Before, it was about fresh foods and those sorts of things. Now it’s about [the fact] that we have to become really efficient. What that means is that your workforce has to become more productive. Then you have to convince them, “OK, can I be fast and friendly at the same time?” Because some people will say, “I can’t be fast and friendly at the same time.”

We set a standard for cashiers of items per minute that we wanted to operate under. Employees by nature will resist change. It is the human way. Only 2.5% of our population will just dive into change and say this is fantastic. Then you have another 12% or so, [who] will go very slowly. Part of the challenge of being agile then is to demonstrate a rationale to your employees that we need to change our behavior, which means you need to change your behavior. And people oftentimes do not want to change.

One of the biggest challenges about being a senior leader is helping people go in a direction they do not want to go. This is exponentially difficult in higher education. In my opinion, in the School of Business, we have a major effort on trying to elevate our teaching experience for our students. You have some people who are naturally good at teaching, who are always trying to improve their style. And then you have others who say, why do I have to do it?

This is where expectancy theory comes in, which says if I am an employee and I am being asked to change, how much do I have to put into this effort to change? What’s the reward I get if I do it and, by the way, how important is that reward to me? Will it create some outcome? It is very difficult. Agility and agile workforce is all about reinvention. What organizations have to do is convince, engage and inspire, but certainly not force their employees to engage in a new set of behaviors and capabilities to go forward. 

What else would you like to add?

It’s hard. It’s kind of a buzzword. The true definition, the true ability to have an agile workforce is one of the toughest things any senior executive can figure out. It is one thing to do your research and determine this is what we want to do. But if you have people who are business development people that have been going out and selling a product or service for 10, 15, even 20 years and have been successful, and then it is no longer successful, coming up with a new business development process is one thing. It is getting your business development people who have been doing it 10 or 15 years to change their behavior. 

In higher education, I can be both a great teacher and a great researcher at the same time. That is agility. 

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