Workplace flexibility in award-winning law firm


Workplace flexibility in award-winning law firm

Some very practical advice on how to implement flexible work practices was provided at the Australian Human Resources Institute HR Practices Day this week.


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Some very practical advice on how to implement flexible work practices in a large law firm was provided at a session of HR Practices Day, conducted by the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) in Sydney on 10 March 2011. Jacqui Abbott, head of Diversity and Flexibility at Allens Arthur Robinson, described the initiatives that won the firm AHRI’s 2010 Award for Workplace Flexibility.
Above all, flexibility is a business issue
Abbott emphasised that Allens regards flexibility as a two-way street, that is, there must be a business case to support its use in each individual case. Individual employee needs alone cannot justify a flexible arrangement.
The starting point for Allens was an employee engagement survey in 2007 that showed both a need and a demand for improved work–life balance. Abbott then conducted one-hour interviews with each of the firm’s top 40 managers. She asked each one for his/her definition of ‘flexibility’, then offered hers. Then she asked them to list their top business priorities and outcomes, following which she explained how flexibility was linked with each one. In this way, flexibility became linked to the bottom line.
When an employee lodges a flexible working arrangements application, he/she has to provide a business case to support the application.
Evaluate both the job and the person
Each individual request for flexible work arrangements must take into account the needs of the job as well as the employee. In most cases, some degree of job redesign is required. However, moving from full-time to part-time work often requires a mindset change as well, because the employee will no longer be the ‘leader’ or the ‘go to’ person, at least on the days he/she is not at work, and will have to learn to say ‘no’ at times and lose any control mentality.
Guidelines are needed to cover expectations of the employee on days he/she is not scheduled to work. An example is how any client calls or urgent matters will be handled. It is advisable to clarify these expectations before commencing a new arrangement.
Dealing with lack of management support
Abbott said that many of the managers she interviewed (see above) were sceptical of flexible work arrangements, and lack of management support remained the biggest barrier to them. One indicator of whether the organisation has a problem in this regard is to ask whether employees would ask for flexible arrangements in the first place — if they won’t, they perceive that management does not support them.
Managers are provided with assistance to manage their teams, in particular to handle issues such as delegation. It is also made clear that flexibility applies to the job and, above all, it is not a right for every employee. Some jobs are unsuited to it and requests would not be granted.
Coaching: employees must be flexible, too
Employees are provided with coaching to help them manage the transition to flexible work arrangements. But following on from the ‘it’s not a right’ rule above, employees are also expected to show some flexibility and give-and-take, and demonstrate that they have good time management skills. All employees can log into the Allens network from home ‘if necessary’.
It appears to be common practice in organisations that employees are not allowed to work from home (other than on an ad hoc basis) for at least 6 to 12 months after starting employment. Even then, hours required at the office usually exceed hours to be worked at home. Other issues to be wary of with working-from-home arrangements include:
  • Employees working from home will often work longer hours without taking a break. This practice needs to be watched.
  • Many employees feel they need to work harder and longer to ‘prove’ themselves because they feel that management and peers may perceive them as being less committed.
  • Technical issues when working from home can be a major hassle to fix. Helpdesk calls from such employees should receive top priority, because office employees can usually use another computer until theirs is fixed.
  • Assessments of working-from-home locations should be ongoing, not just the initial one before work starts.
Transition resource kits
Allens has developed a series of transition resource kits to assist employees moving to flexible working arrangements and their managers. As an example, Abbott described in detail all the resources available when an employee is taking parental leave:
  • A buddy is appointed to enable the employee to stay in touch with the workplace while on leave.
  • There is a one-hour coaching session (usually conducted by Abbott herself) when a female employee is 5 months’ pregnant. This discusses practical issues such as client transitions, childcare and return to work, but also canvasses likely changes in attitude towards work. Men who are to become primary care-givers are included in this program. When it was suggested that the coaching session might remove the responsibility of line managers to deal with parental leave issues, Abbott said that the session contents remain confidential, are not reported to anyone, and employees are encouraged to discuss matters further with their line managers. Abbott suggests structures and strategies to assist employees to take part in those discussions.
  • Eighteen weeks of paid parental leave is provided.
  • Purchased annual leave is available if desired.
  • Transition lunches are held twice per year. Invitees are pregnant employees, employees currently on parental leave, and those who have been back at work for less than 3 years. The lunches have proven to be very valuable networking experiences.
  • Options such as part-time work are available when employees return from work, subject to meeting business needs as discussed above.
  • There is a post-parental leave coaching session 8 weeks after return from leave. This discusses any issues that have arisen since returning. In particular, the quality and type of work being allocated to the employee since returning is evaluated.
Other resources
Apart from the transition resource kits, Allens promotes flexible work arrangements in various other ways, including:
  • posters
  • branding
  • on its intranet, including a FAQ link and employee case histories that are updated at least twice per year — the latter have useful tips on what worked or didn’t work for them
  • employee briefings and flexibility updates.
Abbott claimed that Allens’ approach to flexible work arrangements has achieved the following results since 2007:
  • Around 20% of all employees have formal flexibility arrangements, and 75–80% have ad hoc ones.
  • The return-to-work rate after maternity leave has improved from 81% to 96%.
  • Abbott provides around 120 hours of coaching per year to employees.
  • Managers are displaying more supportive attitudes towards flexible working.
  • The grounds for seeking flexibility are now considered neutral. Previously it was considered a parents-only issue.
Further information
Further information about HR Practices Day, which is being held in all states and territories on different days, is available from AHRI.
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