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Calling time

15 August 05

Legal firms and organisations that have successfully introduced flexible working hours

by Peter Nicholson


Flexible working. Impossible dream or workable practice? Will clients support, tolerate or take their business elsewhere? Is there an alternative to the long hours culture that appears to be the norm for so many practitioners? In short, does the concept “work-life balance” have any meaning for the average solicitor today?

Even those who enjoy their work often find it dominates their lives. The website of one firm that at least allows its staff to speak honestly on the subject includes the comments “If the working day could be cut shorter by a few hours”, and “The only thing I would change is the possibility of flexible working hours”. Other sites may be less explicit, but reading between the lines it is possible to detect a familiar “work hard, play hard” ethos. And yet the pattern is not universal.

Since the Employment Act 2002, employers have been obliged at least to consider an application to work flexible hours by qualifying employees. Those who care for a child aged under six (or a disabled child under 18) at the time of applying, and who have 26 weeks’ continuous service can make a request if for the purpose of caring for the child. Any refusal must be on one of eight specified grounds relating generally to inability to reorganise work to compensate, or detrimental impact on the business. However an employer minded to refuse a request must be careful not to fall foul of the sex discrimination rules in consequence, as British Airways recently found to its cost. An employment tribunal found in favour of pilot Jessica Starmer, whose request to work 50% hours was turned down on the basis of a policy requiring her first to have a minimum amount of flying time.

Not just variable hours

Flexible working is itself a flexible concept. The government website www.tiger.gov.uk suggests 11 different examples, including compressed hours (working the same hours over fewer days), homeworking, staggered hours, and temporarily reduced hours perhaps to help an employee cope with some personal difficulty. Many firms indeed may permit some form of flexible working without even realising it, or at least without formalising it as a policy. But some employers have gone further than the law requires and made it generally available. Those that have, are enthusiastic about its effects and the business benefits that have resulted.

One firm that openly advertises its commitment to flexible working is Anderson Strathern, one of Scotland’s larger firms whose 34 partners almost all work in its showpiece offices in Edinburgh’s west end. Its website even carries an article describing a week in the life of the employment unit – “far from a week in a typical lawyers’ office”, the site claims. Under Andersons’ scheme, staff work the “core hours” of 10am-12 noon and 2-4pm plus other hours of their choice. If they build up enough time they can take off up to one and a half days a month in lieu.

“The flexi-time scheme is very popular and well used and we have seen positive benefits in attendance and commitment as a result”, says the firm’s chairman Robert Carr.

“Many of our people work at home for certain days of the week or parts of a day. The firm has supplied them with computer equipment and connections to all of the firm’s IT systems. Effectively, they have a replica of their work systems at home. Most of our lawyers carry Blackberries so they can also work while on the move.”

One relative novelty the firm has adopted in one case at least, is an annualised hours contract. Jill Bell, Director of Spectrum, Anderson Strathern’s discrimination law service, went part time a few years ago after taking parental leave. In the first year she well exceeded her contracted hours. Rather than compound the problem by changing her contract to reflect the actual hours she was working, Bell’s total annual hours were agreed. She now has the ability to work during school terms and take a break over holidays. “The arrangement has worked extremely well for Jill and the firm over the last few years”, says Carr. “Jill’s experiences of her annualised hours contract help us better assess this sort of arrangement for our clients.”

Let the staff work it out?

If facing a mental block about how the principle might work, why not allow the staff to devise a solution? Over at the Scottish Legal Aid Board, an open-minded and innovative approach of this nature won recognition at the Parents at Work Employer of the Year Awards 2003, when the Board took the award for the most promising new initiative in the “Scottish Employer of the Year” category, and was a finalist for the UK-wide “Innovation Award”.

For the Board, the award provided recognition for the willingness of its staff, and their representatives, to work together to improve its business.

Its initiative began with pilot work-life balance projects in 2002, when the Board encouraged staff teams in 19 groups, ranging in size from two to 12, to design and manage their own working hours. To permit this the Board’s offices were opened for staff for extended hours – now 7am to 7.30pm weekdays and on Saturday mornings.

“The results exceeded everyone’s expectations”, says Personnel Manager Moira Williamson. “The pilot phase proved to be so hugely successful that it was extended to all staff.”

Typical staff comments reported in evaluations included “I feel empowered”, and “has made me better able to plan my work effectively”. On top of the boost to morale, business benefits have included improved service and productivity, while overtime costs have been halved, days lost through sickness brought down to a low level, staff turnover significantly reduced (now standing at less than 10%) and recruitment costs cut. Following a second pilot scheme with all employees, the Board has formalised the arrangements as from 2005 to make flexible working part of how it works.

Responsibility remains within teams for developing team rules about planning staff hours. If they wish to work flexibly they have to work together to ensure that the Board’s business needs and its service to clients remain paramount. Teams have revised their service delivery arrangements and many have improved productivity as a result. “For many operational areas they found that by starting early or working later, they were able to consider more applications or accounts at times when there were fewer telephone calls”, Moira Williamson explains.

Society joins the party

The Law Society of Scotland itself recently introduced flexi-time for its 130-strong staff and has reaped the benefits in a number of ways. “Introducing flexi-time has been a real boost to the Society. It has raised morale and really empowered staff to plan their work, taking time back when they need it”, Ken Cunningham, the Society’s HR Manager, explains.

Whilst flexi-leave was only introduced in May this year, Cunningham believes that its introduction, coupled with the change in law on flexible working in 2003, has certainly helped keep the level of absenteeism at a low point of under 1.5% so far this year, compared with around 3% two years ago and 2% last year.

“People are much more in control of their working day with flexi-time and will arrange dental appointments, for example, early on or over lunch rather than in the middle of the afternoon when it might be more disruptive. The flexi-time system we chose is PC-based and people log on and off themselves, can check and change their holidays, make flexi-day and half day requests themselves, so each member of staff is in control of what they do. That is one of the big pluses about the system we introduced.

“We even changed the core working hours to allow staff to leave at 3pm during the G8 Summit to avoid difficulties in getting home, so there is flexibility even in the flexi system for unplanned events such as transport problems.”

Around 15% of staff at the Society now work part-time hours, ranging from four full days a week, to four hours a day over five days and a variety of combinations in between. The fact that all the requests have been made by women is probably down to women wanting to balance work with childcare. However Cunningham is not too surprised, as 80% of the staff are women.

He added: “The staff have been extremely positive about flexi-time and now have a choice about how they work – taking flexi-leave or changing their hours – and it has made a real difference. Staff are happier and there is that extra commitment when needed.”

Male interest

It would be a mistake to suppose that flexible working only benefits mothers with young children. “Flexible working is not just a female thing as some may believe”, Robert Carr says. “I am told by my employment partners that more and more they are experiencing clients consulting them about requests to work flexibly made by men.”

While we heard of at least one male partner in a family law firm who has gone to four days a week in order to spend time with his children, there is more to the “life” part of the equation, as Bell & Scott’s James Aitken can testify. There cannot be many tax associates who are also time-served electricians, but he is one. “My father persuaded me to learn a trade before heading off to university”, he relates.

Not that he spends his Mondays and Fridays – his non-office days – on callouts to fix washing machines and the like (a pity in some ways, as it might have settled the old chestnut about which pays more). Aitken’s main interest as a tradesman is in extending or refurbishing houses for friends and family.

With a varied work history in the Borders, Fife, London and the USA, experience of commuting from Edinburgh to London and Glasgow – “too much”, he comments – and now married to a full time solicitor, he is happy with his present arrangement. Though considering a four-day rather than a three-day week, he wants to keep time available for other interests: he writes, is currently studying for tax exams, and would like to become involved in housing association management. “I know that some of my legal friends think it odd that I have no interest in becoming a partner, but they are all jealous of the fact that I have time for my other interests”, he comments. “I also reckon working part time makes me more focused when I’m in the office.” Although it doesn’t happen that often, if clients or colleagues want to contact him at other times, they can phone him at home or on his mobile.

The service test

The acid test of any arrangement, of course, is how it meets the demands of client service. As to that, the common assumption is that today’s clients are a homogeneous breed all of whom expect, as if by right, that their lawyers will be on call round the clock, seven days a week – something flexi-working exponents are keen to challenge.

“The hardest thing about it is breaking this belief that clients require you there all the time”, one female partner commented. “Clients are human beings too”, another pointed out – they may actually appreciate seeing their lawyer as a family person rather than some remote being who has no feelings and no other interests in life except the law.

Because contact outside the office by mobile phone or email is now so simple, a client may well not know whether their solicitor is at their desk or outside the school waiting for their children, when dealing with their enquiry. Working patterns can be devised that would simply not have been possible only a decade ago. In other words, provided the employee as well as employer observes the spirit of flexibility, the client need not receive any less of a service.

Robert Carr also sees the principle as positive in terms of client relations. “For us, client service is paramount. We don’t see a flexible management approach to be a problem and indeed it can be a real bonus for clients who often need advice outwith normal working hours. All we are doing is recognising that the commitment from our people deserves an environment where they can take their time back when they are able to do so. There is an obvious fairness about this approach but we believe it makes business sense too – our business is growing at the rate of 15% per year and staff retention rates are excellent.”

Open to review

There is, inevitably, an irreducible minimum which may count against flexible working in very small firms – a base line below which you would not make a profit if not working a set number of hours. But provided you have a mutually supportive number of people who want to make the business profitable and are willing to support one another, those who have already taken that step insist that it is worth having a go.

“If I had advice to give others who are met with a request to work flexibly I would tell them to try it”, Robert Carr concludes. “If it doesn’t work you can always change the arrangement. Too often people say no because they are being asked something new or unknown, when if they just gave it a shot it may be that it would work successfully for both the business and employee.”

A rough guide to flexi-time

Ask employees what is important to them and you may get some surprises. An extra week’s holiday may be more valuable than an extra wage rise

Long, long ago, partners in a law office worked from 9am to 5pm, with a one hour break for lunch. Full stop. In a few distant outposts, there may still be the odd firm where this practice continues. But it’s hard to make a decent return while working within these parameters, particularly since it’s hard to persuade assistants to move more than 10 miles from George Square or Princes Street.

In the larger firms, assistants were usually keen to demonstrate their suitability for partnership by working longer hours. The standard was to leave your door open and dictate loudly, so that any passing partner would know you were still there and toiling (without the expectation of an overtime payment). The “Tournament of Lawyers” continues to this day, as trainees compete to become assistants, assistants compete to become associates and associates compete to become partners. Some things never change.

One partner used to glare at his watch, then at me (watch again, then me again) when I (a callow assistant) strolled in at five past nine. He would have done better to look at the fees I was earning and talk to me about that. 

Secretarial staff were different. I once made the error of standing in front of a herd of secretaries, charging for the door at 4.45, quipping gaily that I hadn’t realised it was 4.30 already. They left me for dead, studded by their high heels, groaning in their dust.

Now, flexi-time is spreading, and a good thing too. It is irrelevant what hours a good worker works. The question is whether the job gets done, not how long is spent in the building.

Good employees have to be encouraged.  Regular consultations on progress are far more important than regular consultations on late arrivals. It is better to foster loyalty than resentment. And payment of the monthly wage cheque does not entitle you to expect loyalty – that has to be earned.

So, be aware of your employees’ personal situations. If they have health problems, find out if private treatment (funded by you) will help matters. If they are regularly late, find out why (taking kids to school, for instance) and offer them different hours, even if they haven’t asked.

Ask them what is important to them and you may get some surprises. An extra week’s holiday may be more valuable than an extra wage rise.

Treat your employees as individuals – which means avoiding the annual wage rise, so prevalent and so disturbing to the peace of the office. Reward success and achievements, rather than time-serving.

Encourage job-sharing and part-time working where this is requested. Part-time workers are often more enthusiastic and the file-sharing problems are not insoluble.

Accept maternity leave without rancour – if she is a good employee, you want her to come back and feel welcome; so no girning, or jokes about the old days, when women would drop their babies at the side of the field, then get on with the potato picking.

Offer sabbaticals to long-serving employees to give them a chance to refresh themselves. This is a particularly good idea for the partner who is dangerously close to having had enough. Better for him to take six months off and come back refreshed, than to groan his way towards a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or early retirement.

Above all, remember that your employees and your partners are ordinary people with the needs, desires and distastes to which we are all prone.  Imagine yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what you would want – or, better still, ask them.

Brian Allingham retired from the legal firm he set up and now works as a management consultant and adviser to small and medium-sized firms throughout Scotland