When national firm Pinsent Masons convened meetings in July 2009 to offer staff the opportunity to take extended leave in return for 80 per cent pay, commercial property associate Paul Kenny and corporate associate Eleanor Tinnelly jumped at the opportunity.
The couple, who met at Pinsents and who are due to get married this year, managed to arrange it so that they had the same period off from their respective jobs.
And they did not waste any time – the scheme started on 1 August 2009 and three days later they were off, backpacking for three months around South East Asia.
“My most enduring memory,” recalls Kenny, “was a two-day overnight boat trip from northern Laos down the Mekong river on a wooden barge. We were really out in the sticks – it was like being an extra in Apocalypse Now.”
That was just one leg of a journey that encompassed Bangkok, Northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Kuala Lumpur.
“I love the food, the landscape, the people, the fact it’s so inexpensive, the snorkelling and diving,” comments Kenny.
In fact, the pair liked it all so much that they will be back in Thailand for their honeymoon come November.
Kenny says that, far from being green with envy, colleagues were “grateful” that some were so willing to take advantage of the scheme “because it saved jobs”.
“I was lucky to be able to accept – a lot of colleagues couldn’t,” he muses.
Not having children enabled the couple to make the trip easily, but they still had mortgage payments, mobile phone bills and Kenny’s golf membership to keep up with.
Forward planning allowed Susan Samuel, a senior associate in the Leeds property team, to take a month off on 20 per cent pay.
“My husband and I both started putting money aside when the recession began because we have two small children and a mortgage,” she says.
Samuel did not do anything quite as exotic as Kenny and Tinnelly, opting instead to spend a month camping in Yorkshire, where “the weather wasn’t that great but we were in the UK”, relates the Australian nine year-PQE lawyer. But as the mother of two young boys, aged seven and four, she was pleased for the rare opportunity to have some “mummy and boy time”.
“In the 12 months prior to the flexible working scheme volumes were certainly down, there was a recognition that a lot of our clients were suffering, investment funds were withdrawing money,” adds Samuel. “Pinsents had held on for as long as it could and it was reluctant [to make redundancies] because you want to keep staff you value and be ready to go [when the market picks up again].”
When the scheme was announced to the Leeds property team it had a 100 per cent sign-up.
“The scheme was voluntary, but to make it work we all knew we needed to get behind it,” added Samuel. “The reason was that we knew we’d held on for as long as we could.”
Pinsents offered staff the option of taking up 13-week sabbaticals and “salary smoothing”, meaning they would earn 80 per cent of their total salaries for a year, work four days per week or take the hit in a specific period.
“I liked the fact that they placed us in the driving seat and [allowed us] to make that decision,” says Samuel.
Managing partner David Ryan is pleased with the success of the scheme, which he feels “had a major galvanising impact on the business” and saved an estimated £2m and 50 jobs. It was part of a seven-point plan that included redeployments and part-time working as well as a limited number of redundancies. However, on reflection he thinks that, if they were ever to implement such a scheme again (and he hopes that it will not be the case), “it works [best] when everybody’s asked to do the same thing”.
“I don’t anticipate having an opportunity like this again,” reflects Samuel. “We’ve been told that it’s not required to be repeated and that we can move on. It was the result of difficult economic circumstances – we don’t really want it to be repeated for that reason.”