Sharing the load

According to research by Affiniti, demand by employees to work at home is set to rise to two-thirds of the UK workplace by 2011. This is not a statistic that any organisation can choose to ignore, let alone the legal industry, which is renowned for its long-hours culture.

Working at home is not the only demand that will need to be addressed. Flexible working means different things to different people – flexible hours, compressed hours, part-time working, job-share, flexible contracts or even working from a client’s office.

A successful flexible working policy will be reliant on effective technology, ensuring that information is accessible 24/7 and in remote or mobile locations. However, although technology is bound to play a significant partin changing work practices, it should not overshadow the key objectives and turn it into nothing more than an IT project. It is a change in culture that will ultimately make a flexible-working project a success.

Easily accessible information, clear policies and careful management are key. Management should participate in an open and regular dialogue with staff about what is available. Using the intranet, memos, newsletters, leading by example and even sending a reminder on National Work from Home Day (yes, there is such a thing) are all worth considering.

An ironic side effect of and trade-off for flexible working is that to be flexible, lots of things have to become less flexible. New protocols and procedures may need to be introduced to manage the ‘new’ workforce and culture change. Being strict with meeting dates and times, better punctuality and tighter agendas are all bound to filter through as the workforce has less time in the office together and the time spent under one roof becomes more purposeful.

One of the difficulties with flexible working is that lawyers, by virtue of the nature of their work, need access to large and complicated case files. Carrying these cumbersome items around would be impossible and would defeat the purpose of mobility. So any firm considering adopting a flexible working policy will need to ensure that necessary information is accessible electronically.

A new flexible-working policy should also provide the opportunity to re-evaluate office space, layout and costs. A half-empty office benefits nobody, and the space that you do have needs to be more welcoming yet less personalised. Coming into the office and grabbing a desk should feel natural and easy, and increased social areas and meeting rooms could make all the difference.

Phil Cousins, HR director, Beachcroft