Flexible working – the business ‘no brainer’

Flexible working - the business ‘no brainer’

Firms are currently redesigning the role of lawyers to address one of the barriers to diversity in the legal industry – the lack of workplace flexibility.

A key issue that emerges when discussing workplace flexibility is that it’s a ‘women’s issue’, when in reality that connotation is long past its use by date.

The landscape has changed

When the idea of flexible working first emerged as an academic concept in the 1960s and 70s, one of the key objectives cited was to increase women’s participation in the labour force.[1] While this goal remains somewhat relevant today, women are clearly not the only beneficiaries of flexible work arrangements.

Workplace flexibility is no more a women’s issue than it is a men’s issue. Now more so than ever it’s plainly a business issue, with flexible practice integral to supporting a healthy workforce, better understanding client needs and delivering improved bottom line performance.

De-gendering and shifting the focus to wellbeing

While we live in a society where women face workplace challenges stemming from parenting expectations, men also face significant barriers when seeking flexible work arrangements. A report from Bain and Company found that men who chose to work flexibly often face difficulties with management and are stigmatised.[2]

McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel noted the results of recent engagement with Government clients around flexible working.

“We’ve been doing some round tables with a number of State and Commonwealth Government departments around how we bring flexibility into departments and how we actually create jobs that are truly flexible,” Ms Podagiel said.

“And we’ve found that men are just as interested in workplace flexibility as women are.

“We’ve also seen an increasing number of male employees at McCullough Robertson seeking out flexible work arrangements because they too want to play larger roles in their lives outside of work”.

Many of the reasons people seek more flexible work arrangements are not gender nuanced. An ageing population means that employees are remaining in the workforce longer and working in different capacities, sprawling cities are forcing longer commutes and encouraging remote models of work, and many physical and mental health conditions are often better managed by integrating work and home life in a way that differs from the traditional 9-5.

Perhaps particularly important to the legal profession is the motivation to work more flexibly as a way to manage health and wellbeing, especially mental health.

The culture of ‘overwork’ in law is well-reported, with almost half of lawyers working ‘very long’ hours – classified as 49 or more hours per week – higher than any other occupation in Australia.[3] Strenuous workloads, significant overtime and high pressure environments are resulting in lawyers having the lowest psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing when compared to all other professions.[4]

While flexible working practices are not a ‘cure all’, a survey conducted by consultancy Flexjobs found 77 per cent of respondents believed flexible work would allow them to be healthier. 86 per cent responded that flexible employment would cause them to be less stressed.[5]

A compelling business case for flexible work

The anecdotal evidence in support of flexible working has been apparent for years, but only recently have more quantitative findings shown how flexible businesses can see benefits to the bottom line.

A recent Victorian Government study funded the development of a model to calculate the financial return on investment for organisations providing flexible work options, and then applied this model to three different organisations – a State Government agency, a not-for-profit health and aged care provider and a statutory corporation managing utilities.

When factoring the costs of implementing flexible work practices like management burden, onboarding costs and IT expenses, against the savings such as labour productivity, employee retention and reduced recruitment, all three organisations came out well ahead. Notably, the State Government agency was found to be saving roughly $31 million each year and the health and aged care not-for-profit roughly $23 million annually.[6]

Law firms also stand to gain valuable client-servicing benefits from adopting flexible work practices. With the emergence of the gig economy and less structured employment, client businesses are becoming more varied, and servicing these clients may require firms to be available on varied schedules. Firms may also benefit from having first-hand experience of different employment arrangements as a way of better understanding their clients and how they operate.

Flexibility, from top to bottom

While firms have committed to implement flexible working practices, there is still a long way to go to ensure a culture of flexibility is embedded within organisations, with only 10 per cent of law firm partners currently working part time or having flexible working hours.[7]

Justine Rowe, a Telstra Legal Services Executive, commented on the importance of leading from the top to ensure flexibility becomes the norm instead of the exception to the rule.

“When you see people moving further and further up the corporate structure, you don’t necessarily see people working flexibly at the top”, said Ms Rowe.

“It really comes down to mindset and leadership. If you are wanting your team to be grabbing flexible work opportunities with both hands, then you need to be role-modelling it as well.”

Ms Rowe also noted the shift away from hours present at the office towards a focus on work outcomes.

“I get the opportunity to almost have a social contract with the function that I’m supporting and about how I go about supporting them. I work from home every Friday, and we use virtual meeting rooms and a number of other mechanisms to engage with our workforce.”“I’m a lawyer that supports a function in our organisation, and I have a lot of flexibility about how I can support that function.

Changing the way we do business is never easy, and for an industry steeped in tradition and wedded to the practices of years gone by, change can often feel like tracking through mud. But with the benefits laid plainly on the table – both to organisations and the persons they employ – flexible working becomes less of an obligation and more of an opportunity.

[1] https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP9596/96rp26

[2] https://www.bain.com/insights/the-power-of-flexibility

[3] https://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/careers/17145-working-overtime-is-self-defeating

[4] https://www.afr.com/leadership/lawyers-have-lowest-health-and-wellbeing-of-all-professionals-study-finds-20151118-gl1h72

[5] https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/2018-annual-survey-finds-workers-more-productive-at-home

[6] https://www.vic.gov.au/case-study-flexible-work-reduces-gender-pay-gap-and-saves-money

[7] https://www.afr.com/business/legal/law-firms-embrace-flexible-working-20170203-gu4rsa


Unconscious bias – the silent nemesis of diversity

Unconscious bias – the silent nemesis of diversity

At an industry event, Year 101: Women in law – the next 100 years, that took place earlier this year, a panel of senior female legal minds were asked “If you had $50,000 to spend on the development of women at your organisation, what would you spend it on?” Without missing a beat, McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel responded, “Unconscious bias training”.

Lifting the lid on unconscious bias is not only one way we can support the progression of women. It allows us to support all people in our workplace, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability or any other attribute.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal and able to influence behaviour.[1] As humans, we like to believe that we control our own thoughts, actions and decision making, but in reality, this is rarely the case.

Our unconscious minds rely on these perceptions and stereotypes to allow us to quickly process what is going on around us. But as we all know, efficiency doesn’t always equal effectiveness, and sometimes the shortcuts our brains take cause us to unconsciously discriminate against others.

A challenge for even the most progressive and inclusive

The issue with unconscious bias is that it can gazump even the most progressive, egalitarian and well-intentioned people. A Boston University study highlighted the staggering results of unconscious bias when participants were asked to solve the following riddle:

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”. What relationship does the surgeon have with the boy?

While some participants scored ‘diversity’ points for suggesting the surgeon was the boy’s gay, second father, only 15% of participants suggested that the surgeon was the boy’s mother.[2]

While we can’t change our personal experiences and the norms we’ve learned, we can take a step back to challenge why we are making certain decisions and become more aware of the quick judgements we draw.

Unconscious bias in the workplace

When apparent in the workplace, unconscious bias may result in talented people being overlooked during recruitment or not being given equal opportunity for development and career progression. It may also mean that diverse voices are not heard and that key decisions are impaired.

One of the most significant issues the legal industry faces is the lack of diversity among key decision makers – those at the top of the legal profession. While there is a roughly even proportion of male to female solicitors[3], only 28.5% of partners in Australian law firms are women[4]. Beyond gender diversity in senior positions, the reality is even starker for people of colour and people with disabilities.

When largely homogenous groups hold much of the decision-making power, despite the best efforts of those decision-makers, unconscious bias is still at work. Our brains are hardwired towards patterns of familiarity and comfort, while difference is harder to accommodate.

Women may continue to be overlooked for demanding roles deemed incompatible with ‘family life’, older people may be disregarded for tasks requiring technological nous, and employees from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may be stigmatised by stereotypical values and behaviours.

The challenge at hand

The barriers that unconscious bias present to diversity in the legal profession are significant enough that in 2017 the Law Council of Australia made unconscious bias training modules available to all Australian legal professionals[5].

But beyond one-off training sessions, there needs to be an organisational commitment to addressing unconscious bias.

McCullough Robertson HR Director Louise Ferris said we need to start recognising and talking about instances where we see unconscious bias affecting our workplace.

“The challenge lies in creating an environment where we can talk about unconscious bias and call out examples of bias in decision making in a way that is productive, as opposed to being critical of the decision makers themselves,” Ms Ferris said.

“It’s a conversation about challenging the social and cultural norms that have been impressed on us for so long, about learning from our challenges and mistakes and about being better prepared to manage our own personal biases in the future.

“From a practical perspective, we have to work hard to actively challenge our unconscious biases. This may include taking a test to identify these biases and then putting ourselves in situations where these can be challenged. Once we recognise that we have biases we can take steps to self-evaluate and call ourselves out on, as well as taking steps such as ‘blinding’ ourselves when making decisions.”

“Unless we’re rolling out unconscious bias training and really having people look at every significant decision they make through that lens, then we will get people into the industry, but there will be attrition,” she said.Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel noted the importance of targeting unconscious bias to ensure organisations can attract and retain the best talent from the diverse pool of people coming into the industry.

Unfortunately reprogramming the human brain is not as simple as installing the latest iOS update, but unconscious bias training can teach people how to interrupt classical thought pathways and make behavioural changes.

‘Silent’ problems like unconscious bias are notoriously difficult to identify and even more difficult to address, but in recognising the issue, taking practical steps to educate and by having the confidence to call out bias in respectful and productive ways, perhaps we can begin to change the way individuals think, organisations operate and industries respond to an increasingly diverse workforce.

[1] https://events.cipd.co.uk/events/blog/unconscious-bias/

[2] http://www.bu.edu/articles/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias

[3] https://www.lawsociety.com.au/advocacy-and-resources/advancement-of-women/gender-statistics

[4] https://www.afr.com/business/professional-services/why-women-lawyers-quit-the-partnership-track-20190702-p523ix

[5] https://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/media/media-releases/legal-profession-launching-unprecedented-national-initiative-to-counter-unconscious-bias