Achieving workplace flexibility is not such a stretch

[People Management(HR)] July 15, 2011

The pressure on law firms to implement workplace flexibility has been steadily increasing for years. While most firms agree in principle with the concept, putting policies in place that work for the business and employees has proven difficult, writes Stephanie Gall.


Can we have it all? A career, a family, a social life – all at the same time? There is no doubt that Australian professionals increasingly want a better balance between career and personal goals. Given that trend, Australian law firms are realising that they need to cater for those desires if they want to attract committed, happy employees.

The issue of flexibility in the workplace received significant attention after the Australian Government’s Right to Request provisions came into effect in early 2010. The current legislation means that eligible employees are able to request a change in their working arrangements to care for a child and poses penalties for organisations whose decision to refuse a request is not based on reasonable business grounds. While this has forced many businesses in a range of industries to implement flexible working arrangements for the first time, many law firms had already been attempting, with mixed success, to cater for employees requiring unconventional working arrangements.

Practise what you preach

Juliet Bourke, a former lawyer who is now human capital partner at Deloitte Consulting, believes some law firms are struggling to effectively implement flexible working arrangements because of a gap between intention and practice. “I would say that organisations do espouse, and managers do believe, in the value of flexibility,” she says. “But when the rubber hits the road and they actually have to implement it, it becomes a lot harder in practice.”

Research backs up such an assertion. The results from a national survey conducted by Bourke in 2009, entitled, Wake-Up Call: Few Employers are Ready for the Right to Request Flexibility and Time is Running Out, showed that two-thirds of respondents thought flexibility was promoted in the workplace, but less than half had faith in their organisation’s ability to implement it. A mere 9 per cent said that flexibility was being implemented ‘effectively’ or ‘very effectively’, while the majority of respondents (63 per cent) said flexibility was being implemented ‘quite effectively’ or ‘effectively’. Possibly the most concerning finding was that more than one quarter of respondents claimed that their organisation was not implementing flexibility at all.

Not in my back yard

One challenge in achieving these flexible working arrangements is the need to adapt them to the specific requirements of a profession. Bourke says organisations that believe workplace flexibility is not feasible for their industry are not considering all of the possibilities. “It’s funny, you know, every industry, every profession thinks they’re special and thinks you could probably do flexibility somewhere else but you really can’t do it here (and in law) you find the same thing. People say, ‘Oh, you just couldn’t do it in mergers and acquisitions, but you could probably do it in litigation’.”

She agrees that the nature of some professions, such as law, poses specific challenges to implementing workplace flexibility and requires a considered approach. “Not all types of flexibility work for all areas. But it is a matter of extending our vision, our perspective, to see what can work.”

What is clear is that flexible working arrangements should benefit both the employer and employee. And, as more people are realising, it is not just about women and maternity leave, either. “It’s not just for specific groups of people,” Bourke says. “We’ve seen much more of a desire to balance work and life, or work and family. Workplace flexibility becomes an issue, then, for lots of people. It’s the people wanting to do postgraduate study; it’s the people with a significant sporting interest. It’s for lots of different reasons.”

Interestingly, a US study by the Families and Work Institute, entitled Dual-Centric: A New Concept of Work-Life, suggests people with diverse interests may be of more value to a firm. It found that these types of people, or dual-centrics, are better able to handle stress than their mono-centric colleagues. So these are the types of people organisations should be trying hard to retain, Bourke says.

Culture change the key

So, if organisations are willing to implement flexible working arrangements and employees want them, what is going wrong? According to Bourke, organisations may need help with reassessing their work design. Managers also need the confidence to be able to handle a number of people working flexibly, as well as any issues that may arise in the implementation of those arrangements.

Bourke admits this task can be stressful for managers. “It is an additional stress on someone’s day, but that’s a very short-term stress. What you get is the long-term benefit of having highly qualified, highly committed, highly engaged staff.”

Another issue preventing organisations from embracing flexible workplaces is the stigma that is still often attached to working under such unconventional arrangements, according to Bourke. “And, significantly, we’re seeing that as an issue for men around family. It’s still seen as, kind of, breaking through if they want to do work and family at the same time, whereas women, in some ways, have the permission to ask.”

If they want to attract and retain staff, workplaces need to create a culture in which employees feel comfortable asking for flexible working arrangements, Bourke says. “We see the person who’s prepared to push forward and say ‘I need some flexibility’, and standing right next to them is a person who’s thinking ‘I don’t need it right now, but I might’. And that ‘watcher and waiter’ is really looking at how law firms are managing that piece. Organisations that really put it out there that partnership is only available if you’re going to do these excessive hours and (call on staff to) just lay your life down at the altar of work – is not an attractive model for a large group of people who are committed and dedicated and fantastic lawyers.”

Two rules of thumb

Bourke offers two key rules when implementing workplace flexibility. The first is discussing with – not telling – employees how flexibility can work for the business and the employee. If they have input into finding a solution to their flexibility needs, they will typically step up to the mark. The second is to realise that situations change. A flexible working arrangement that was negotiated with an employee two years ago may no longer be relevant. They may have become a parent, for example, or had a change in their family circumstances. So check in with workers from time to time and reassess their situation.

Through all of the research and statistics, one thing is clear, according to Bourke – managers in the legal profession need to see flexibility in the workplace as an opportunity rather than a problem to be dealt with. “Because if we don’t, we’re going to be missing out on that talent, and we’re going to be missing out on thinking about different ways of working which connects us, in the legal profession, with our clients.”