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