Jo Alilovic and Lucy Dickens are both experienced lawyers, contributors to LawCPD and advocates for flexible work. In this article, they share their thoughts on how to manage common misconceptions about flexible work arrangements in the law.
Does your law firm hate flexible work?
We hear you.
We regularly speak to business owners who share their concerns with us about flexible work. Often fear of the unknown is enough to shut down a request to work flexibly. The only way to move past that is to educate law firm leaders. If we can alleviate their concerns, we can open up a world of opportunities for flexible working which benefit both individuals and their workplaces.
In this article, we take a look at the three most common concerns about flexible working that we hear from employers and set out our suggested strategies to address them.
1. Flexible workers are inaccessible
Ah, the art of managing expectations! When it comes down to it, the concern about how accessible a flexible worker will be to colleagues and clients is really about managing expectations.
Often the big misconception is the perception that if a client or colleague wants something and the lawyer isn’t physically present in the office to do the job, either it doesn’t happen or someone else will have to do it. There is also a fear that clients will go elsewhere.
Let’s challenge employers as to whether this is really the case.
Does the work really need to be done immediately? What will happen if it waits until tonight, tomorrow, or next week? Does the client really need the work done right now, or have they just been given an unrealistic expectation? What if the lawyer was away sick, would the job wait for them to return?
“More often than not some simple expectation management techniques are enough”
Very few tasks are actually drop-everything urgent. Most people will be happy to leave the job with you, so long as they know when they can expect to hear from you again.
Most of the time, telling Mary that you’re working flexibly and will get the work to her by next Friday will do the job.
What about those fixed dates? Court appearances aren’t so flexible. Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that lawyers can’t be flexible around them. Remember – flexible work is about give and take. It doesn’t mean only working at times that suit the lawyer. It might mean swapping work days one week to accommodate the Court. Or lawyers can adopt other strategies, like partnering up with a colleague and making appearances on each other’s behalf for straightforward matters.
As for accessibility - we live in an age of technology!
We reject the notion that lawyers become inaccessible to clients by virtue of the fact that they work flexibly. No employee is present in the office to answer every single phone call or respond to every email within 5 minutes. (If they are, they’re probably not doing a good job at managing their workload!) Again, it comes down to expectation management. You may not always be present to answer the phone, but you will always follow up promptly to a voicemail message.
So far as connecting with colleagues goes, options are almost endless. Have you considered Skype for Business? Trello? Slack? Microsoft Teams? A good old-fashioned phone call?
2. Loss of control over lawyers
One of the most common concerns that employers have about flexible working is that they will lose control over a lawyers’ performance. A big concern is that staff will focus on their own needs and won’t get the work done.
“How do I know they’re actually working when they’re at home, and not just making dinner or hanging out the washing?”
Law firm leaders react to this concern by becoming protective of the organisation and setting limits on what can be accommodated.
Our response to this is always the same – how do you know they’re working when they’re in the office? Bums on seats is not the same as engaged and effective bums – wherever they might be located!
If you can’t trust your lawyers to work remotely or manage their own workload on a flexible basis, can you really trust them at all?
For what it’s worth, we think that if an employee can make dinner, hang out the washing and still get their work done, everyone’s a winner!
The mindset shift here is to move to a focus on outputs and outcomes instead of time. If a lawyer has achieved the same output in 6 hours they worked at home as the 6 hours they worked in the office, does it matter where they were when they did the work? Focus on managing their performance, not where they are located and the specific number of hours on the job.
The best results are achieved when employer and employee work collaboratively and think outside the box as to what can be achieved for all. We have to trust one another.
3. Flexible working arrangements are inflexible
Yes, this sounds counter-intuitive to us too, but this is a legitimate concern we hear often.
“If I let Mary leave at 4PM every day, I’m stuck with that forever.”
Of course the whole premise of flexible work is that it is flexible! It involves give and take from both parties. If something isn’t working for someone, it needs to be addressed.
The best way to give everyone comfort is to have some clear structure around your flexible working arrangement
Using lack of ability to change is simply an excuse, and a poor one at that.
The best way to give everyone comfort about this is to trial it and have some clear structure around your flexible working arrangement by putting it in writing. In order to feel comfortable that it can be changed (by either party) build in regular reviews each month or quarter. Have a series of metrics for discussion to determine whether the arrangement is working, and perhaps even some agreed alternatives.
Flexible work makes good business sense
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that flexible work arrangements make good business sense. Building the business case to back this up in your firm might be a little trickier, but it’s far from impossible. By supporting lawyers as whole people through access to flexible working arrangements, not only can employers feel good, they can also see a direct impact on profits.
If your employer is resistant to flexible work requests, the best advice we have is to take baby steps. Implement small adjustments in the way you work on a trial basis and agree on some metrics to measure your success.