Lending a helping hand

You know the situation: deadline day is upon you and the nanny has just phoned to say that she is going back to Uzbekistan, immediately. Your best suit needs collecting from the dry cleaners before tomorrow’s presentation and you haven’t even begun to think about your dinner tonight. So what do you do? For an increasing number of staff in UK law firms, the answer is simple: you make a single phone call to sort it all out, from cover for the nanny to collecting the dry cleaning.

CMS Cameron McKenna was one of the first UK law firms to offer such a service to its employees. Avril Plumb, Camerons’ head of human resource (HR) policy and planning, says that the need for such a service was identified through staff consultation. She says: “We did an employee survey, largely to find out how staff felt three years after the merger [between Cameron Markby Hewitt and McKenna & Co].” One of the things that emerged was that staff found it difficult to balance their work with their domestic pressures.

Plumb says that the concierge service is aimed at helping people to focus on their work. Not all of the services are provided free of charge, but then employees can afford to pay. As Plumb says: “It’s geared to cash-rich, time-poor people.”

Plumb admits that, along with other professional services firms, Camerons is finding the market for talented staff harder to compete in than ever. “Everyone is chasing a few good people, and you’re fighting to keep more of the right staff,” she says.

Hence the concierge service. The market for such services is booming as employers look for a new angle to add sparkle to a jaded set of traditional benefits, and as the whole issue of balancing work and lifestyle rises up the corporate – and the Government’s – agenda.

The range of services on offer is vast and can cover anything from information on local schools to a party planning service. Basically, it includes anything that might distract employees, or indeed force them to take time off work, either as leave or as the odd “healthy” sick day.

Whether it is arranging childcare cover or finding a trustworthy plumber, such domestic nuisances can have a huge impact on the performance of staff at work. For staff that have been recently relocated to a new office, such a service can save invaluable amounts of time and hassle.

Concierge services are far more prevalent in the US, and as rivalry for staff between US and UK firms in the City hots up, there is likely to be even more pressure on UK firms to provide them. Mike Ashton, a consultant with employee benefits experts Towers Perrin, accepts that there may be some pressure as firms struggle to match the lifestyle expectations of potential recruits. But he warns that the effects of these services can be limited. “There is logistically a limit to these services,” he says. “While they might work well in large cities, they are less appealing in a small town in Devon, for example.”

But Ashton does accept that law firms have to look beyond the traditional package to appeal to and retain an increasingly demanding workforce. But it does not have to be a concierge service. “Staff want benefits that allow them to do other things. They want access to services like health clubs,” he says.

Linklaters & Alliance is one firm that provides staff with such lifestyle benefits. But rather than adopt the concierge approach, Linklaters has opted to do things directly. For example, it has an in-house health club for staff. Those unable to take advantage of it are offered free membership to the Holmes Place chain of health clubs. It also offers a free doctor, along with a physiotherapist and dentist which the employees pay for. Mavis Rees is senior personnel manager for compensation and benefits at the firm. She claims that the dentist is especially valuable to lawyers who are new to the area, who can find it difficult to get to a dentist near their home. The firm’s London office also boasts a shop offering services such as dry cleaning and film processing.

Tom Shorten, managing director of concierge service provider Enviego, says that the demands of law firm employees are changing. “Law firms are younger and more modern than they used to be. These firms employ lots of young go-getters. Staff expect a better lifestyle, including the ability to balance their work and home life,” he says.

As to the traditional package of car, pension and healthcare, Shorten questions whether employees appreciate their value. “They only use a car if they travel, and healthcare if they’re sick,” he says. In contrast, he claims that the concierge service can be used all the time as well as by the staff member’s family. So employees are always feeling the benefit.

More cynical observers point out that all such services do is tie employees to their desks. Why let staff run amok in the high street at lunchtime, when they can be slaving away at their desks earning you money? Ashton disagrees with such a cynical view. “Staff in law firms often work long hours and it can be difficult getting things done,” he says. “If an employer is willing to provide a service to get those things done… it’s not designed to encourage people to work long hours.”

Not surprisingly, Shorten agrees with this more positive take on these benefits. “What these services do,” he claims, “is allow people to make the most of the time they’re outside work.” He also points out that these services are usually open to partners and families. The objective, according to Shorten, is to allow staff to really relax and unwind in their spare time, rather than have to worry about dull domestic chores. This makes them more productive when they get back into the office.

There also strong financial arguments supporting the introduction of work-life polices, in particular concierge services. These revolve primarily around staff not having to take time out of their working day to resolve a domestic crisis. Whether this means that the receptionist does not jam up the switchboard with calls to find a reliable plumber or a senior partner avoids becoming stressed while arguing with a nanny recruitment agency, the firm still gains. Where the staff member is charging billable hours, this gain could, of course, go straight to the bottom line.

According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), companies are spending an increasing amount of money on successfully recruiting all the staff they need. Nick Page, adviser in pay and employment conditions at the CIPD, says the increasing competition for the best employees has led to a 10.5 per cent rise in the cost of labour turnover in the past 12 months. This figure, which includes the cost of replacing an employee and the resultant loss of productivity, now stands at £5,206 for professional employees. When you have spent that much money recruiting someone, it surely makes financial sense to do what you can to make sure they stay around long enough to make it worthwhile.

But while it seems obvious that one way of hanging on to these staff is to cater for their lifestyle needs, it is less clear whether the concierge service is the right way to go about achieving this objective. Ashton claims that despite all the headlines they grab, concierge services account for only a very small part of the whole work-life balance issue. Even looking at the benefits package, many employees may find that childcare vouchers or an on-site gym would be more valuable.

Other policies that Ashton claims are helping staff to achieve a better balance include more widespread use of sabbaticals and providing a wide range of voluntary benefits at a discount that employees pay for themselves.

Plumb at Camerons defends the firm’s use of the concierge service. Its staff survey showed that the traditional one-size-fits-all approach typical for a law firm was out of touch with staff needs. “We found that different benefits were appreciated by different staff. There are lifestyle considerations which are broader than salary conditions,” she says.

This desire for greater flexibility is also a factor behind the expansion of so-called flexible benefits packages. These allow employees to trade benefits against one another to match their package to their lifestyle. Older employees can top up their pension or take medical insurance, while younger staff might top up their car allowance to get that Porsche. Ashton claims that such an approach is becoming increasingly popular. He says: “We did some research at the beginning of the year, and 55 per cent of respondents claimed that they were looking at introducing some flexibility into their reward structure.”

One of the reasons such an approach is popular in the professional service sector is that the total reward pot tends to be fairly generous, so that there is a significant amount of scope to be flexible.

Whatever approach they take, it seems that the future will require HR managers within law firms to look beyond the traditional package of benefits, not only to make sure they are competitive in the recruitment market, but also to make sure that they keep hold of employees once they have got them.