Flexible working – it really works

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of organisations adopting flexible working practices, from the simple opportunity to work occasionally from home to full cross-organisational home or mobile-worker initiatives.

If multinational companies can implement and run flexible working schemes successfully, driving huge cost savings while at the same time giving employees more freedom, why don’t more law firms embrace the principles? The answer usually derives from concerns based on control, quality and cultural issues. However, such issues are as important for other organisations as they are for law firms, and they are not insurmountable.

An example of the successful adoption of flexible working practices in recent years is BT. BT’s implementation commenced in 2001, at which time I was an employee. I viewed the initiative with scepticism, as I did not feel that my role could effectively be undertaken away from my colleagues and resources. Equally, my team at the office and the business teams we supported were a close-knit group of individuals who functioned extremely well together.

It takes time to build a team and get the dynamics right and I saw flexible working as a threat to morale. I also had concerns regarding the practical and quality aspects of providing a service using a geographically disparate team.

Having been an employee at BT during the implementation and for several years thereafter, I admit that my perception was wrong. With the right approach flexible working can and does work extremely well.

Today around 9,500 BT staff work primarily from home (fully fledged home workers), with an additional 63,000 working independently from any location at any time (mobile workers, most of whom have no permanent desk within an office).

Technology enables all staff to gain seamless access to the systems they need. Teams and colleagues meet regularly and can use offices on an ad hoc basis when necessary.

Several years on and I now run a commercial law practice on a virtual basis, embracing the principles of flexible working. The firm, The Legal Desk, strives to do things on an innovative level, both in terms of its working practices and also its business model.

The firm’s lawyers are an integral part of the firm, but with one fundamental difference: they remain self-employed. Each lawyer earns an income that is directly proportionate to the fees they earn for the business, making them stakeholders in the success and growth of the practice.

The firm’s lawyers value the flexibility to work from any location and to work whatever hours suit their lifestyles. Reduced overheads also help ensure that the firm can offer better value for money to clients.

It would be fair to say that it is easier to design and establish a new business on a virtual basis than it is to institutionally reform a complex, multifaceted organisation.

It is by no means easy to do things differently in a profession that places great value in tried-and-tested models. However, the fact remains that early adopters of flexible working practices, such as BT, IBM, Accenture and HR Revenue & Customs, have been cashing in on the benefits for years.

Economic and social factors ranging from pressure to reduce our carbon footprint through to an emphasis on work-life balance seem to point towards flexible working practices. It is therefore inevitable that all organisations, including law firms, will need to embrace change at some point. Why not lead the way?