How can we break the stigma of flexible working?
For years now, study after study has shown that flexible working increases employee productivity and retention. This is a good thing that everybody believes in, right? Specifically, working from home can make an employee substantially more productive. The still often cited Stanford Experiment of 2013 showed an impressive 13% uplift in productivity amongst home workers compared to office based counterparts and a 50% reduction in attrition. And it’s not all one way traffic: the business itself improved total productivity by between 20-30% and saved about $2000 per employee.
This isn’t a guarantee of course, but it’s safe to say that as long as the job is one that can be performed flexibly, most people can be just as productive, if not more so. Cutting out excessive travel time, having the convenience of not having to be in a set place at a set time and being trusted to work outside the line of sight of a manager or supervisor, gives workers the licence to be more efficient, resulting in increased output and loyalty to the employer.
In the past few years, we have tracked a growing outward acceptance of the idea of flexible working across many law firms. But are firms genuinely fully embracing of the idea of flexible working? Or has this been a largely forced response to an increasingly candidate short market where it is becoming more difficult to recruit and retain the best talent
In the current climate, the best and most successful firms are moving away from a culture of presenteeism and are recognising and reaping the mutual benefits of flexible working. Crucially, their partners (owners) and managers normalise this in practical ways, changing the culture through their actions rather than hiding behind a policy of words which can be inwardly frowned upon. The best businesses have respected, senior stakeholders who encourage and legitimise flexible working, making it seem less like a special privilege and creating an environment where team members are not made to feel guilty or that their prospects will be damaged as a consequence of working flexibly. It’s often a win-win: more productivity aligned with greater agility.
Simply put, employees want to be treated as people, as adults, rather than simple units of production. This is the bottom line. One partner at a top international law firm recently told us (without any prompting) that “we are very open to flexible working here. I’m about achieving the right output in the right way for the individual, the team and the firm.” Wise words.
Sadly, we encounter examples of firms mis-selling or paying lip service to flexible working – where the perception differs markedly from the reality. In some environments, working flexibly is still seen as “shirking from home” - correlating to a lack of commitment or a sign of weakness. Furthermore, there is a feeling amongst lawyers that they have to conform to the ideal of “being a 24/7 worker,” and that they have to hide responsibilities in their private life from view in order to “get on.”
Whilst it’s clear that having a successful career in professional services brings its demands, it’s clearly not acceptable that employees feel they need to prioritise their jobs all the time ahead of other important parts of their lives: their roles as parents (actual or anticipated), their personal needs and interests, and even their health. Harvard Business School notes how “this reality is difficult to talk about, let alone challenge… because an overwhelming number of people believe that achieving success requires them and those around them to conform to this 24/7 ideal.”
In an age where we are seeing the rise of smart IT and tech innovation coupled with a shortage of skilled lawyers in the market, it bears out that employers who continue to adopt a more draconian approach to flexible working will be much less acceptable to the changing workforce, risking their reputations as “good employers.” This resonates even more in a world that is becoming more attuned to the negative impact of issues surrounding mental health and stress at work.
So what is the next step? Like it or not, the working world is being transformed by advances in technology, by the rise of the gig economy and by more agile ways of doing business. Therefore a flexible working policy is probably no longer enough. The smartest, most adaptable businesses are already hiring flexibly, designing creative working patterns and using more contingent workers – effectively seeking to establish an agile working led workforce and culture for the future. The typical law firm can and must find a way to follow suit.
If you are looking at exploring new opportunities which may offer you flexible working or perhaps you’d like to modify your working pattern with a current employer, some key points worth remembering:
Do your research
If the job profile isn’t clear about what flexibility (if any) is possible, it is a good idea to find out the situation before you apply. It is also worth inquiring as to whether the firm already has people working flexibly in that type of position and/or team and what the policy is. Use a trusted recruitment consultant who is familiar with the culture of the firms you are interested in.
Know your worth
If you hold a senior position, have hard-to-find skills in a high demand or premium area of law and/or niche experience, you will probably hold much stronger negotiating powers. Capitalise on the fact the market remains tight and law firms are struggling to find suitable candidates for some roles.
Show you can make it work
Demonstrate how you make it work in your current role, without apologising for it. Give tangible examples of your successes.
Don’t lead on the flexibility issue
Avoid the mistake of sounding as if you’ve only applied because it’s a job with flexible working options. Quality of work; better career prospects; the chance to work for a larger / smaller / international / boutique firm are all powerful validations of making a next move. Flexibility is one aspect but shouldn’t be viewed as any more or less important as any other.
At Chadwick Nott, our consultants have strong, long-standing relationships with law firms across the UK, including international firms, national heavyweights, mid-market regional firms and smaller boutique practices and we have unrivalled access to key decision makers. If you would like advice about the legal market, including flexible working and the best way of making this work for you, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Jon joined Chadwick Nott in 2016 and is a very successful consultant covering Birmingham, the West Midlands, East Midlands, Northern Home Counties and East Anglia regions.
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