HR & talent management: Bending the rules

Recruiting, managing and incentivising a flexible workforce may be challenging, but both the firm and the individual benefit

What are the most common types of flexible resourcing models you are aware of being used or considered?

Ben Bennett
Ben Bennett

Ben Bennett, chief operating officer, Farrer & Co: Twenty-five per cent of the firm (including partners, fee-earners and support staff) already have a flexible working arrangement. But we expect this figure to continue to rise. The most common are part-time and remote working, or a combination of the two. However, we have also seen an increase in requests for term-time working and non-standard hours.

We have embraced technology to help enable this. Our remote systems and the integration of smart devices has allowed us to adopt a much more creative approach to working. And it is not just mothers of young children who are looking for greater flexibility. The ‘sandwich generation’ are increasingly requiring flexibility to allow them to juggle their work commitments while supporting elderly parents and caring for their young children.

Meanwhile, generation Y wants more control over where and how they work and would like to have time to pursue other aspects of their lives while progressing their career.

Fathers also want to participate in childcare and this has been reflected in increased requests for flexibility from men. This is increasingly becoming less a gender issue and more a talent-retention issue.

Mary Gallagher, diversity and talent manager, Addleshaw Goddard: The traditional law firm resourcing model lacks flexibility, meaning that firms may be unable to react quickly to fluctuations in levels of business. A number of law firms are introducing flexible resourcing models in particular, looking at ways of tapping into freelance lawyers (often ex alumni) who are able to help provide maternity cover, work on fixed-term assignments, backfill for associates sent on client secondments, provide specialist skills necessary on a particular transaction or cover any short-term unforeseen peaks in workload. We have engaged a number of lawyers in the past on this basis. 

As well as allowing the firm to manage its resources in a more flexible way, this kind of arrangement can appeal to individuals who want to work for top-tier clients and on quality assignments but do not want to work permanently for a corporate law firm, with the additional demands that entails and often the lack of flexibility.

Also, firms are increasingly using technology to allow individuals or even whole teams to work remotely. This engages the individuals and allows firms to make cost savings based on reduced office space. 

Sasha Hardman, HR director, Ashurst: We use elements of outsourcing and near-shoring as well as flexible working – by which we mean part-time working, job sharing and remote working – within our organisation. Offshoring and zero hours contracts provide additional flexible resourcing models, although these do not feature in our work force.

What are the main HR issues created by these models?

SH: Managing different elements of flexible resourcing models requires different skills and experience. For example, if areas are outsourced, account relationship managers are needed to ensure services such as catering or reception represent value for money and that the service delivery meets the required service level agreement. 

For nearshoring, a clear management structure and excellent communication skills are required. Flexible working arrangements function best when the firm understands the importance of varied working arrangements and both sides work on getting these arrangements to work – for example, clear expectation setting on all sides at the outset of a new flexible arrangement. 

Mary Gallagher
Mary Gallagher

MG: Utilising individuals on a freelance basis who are not previously known to the firm can create quality control issues, unless the ‘recruitment’ process is managed carefully. It is also important to make sure individuals are sufficiently inducted into the firm to ensure the product and service they are delivering is commensurate with the output of employees engaged on a permanent basis. This is where tapping into alumni networks can be very helpful as the individuals are already known to the firm and vice versa.

Remote working brings its own challenges around adequate supervision of individuals and ensuring they feel part of the team and are not isolated in their roles. 

BB: Continuity of client care goes to the heart of what we do and effective communication both with clients and internally has been key to maintaining this, made easier by our technological solutions and systems. 

As well as the more obvious implications regarding logistics and health and safety, it has raised some interesting challenges in managing people, in particular supervision and delegation, career management and consistency. This is not just with regards to those individuals who work flexibly but also for those who do not and who may feel impacted by changes in their team’s working arrangements.

It is also less about the flexibility of one individual and more about the agility of the firm to work in different ways. There is no one way of working. Cultural open-mindedness, commitment and communication are key, yet it is easy to focus on the process of delivery when the real imperative is ensuring a quality outcome for the client. 

Joanna Worby, managing partner, Brachers: Firms need to understand core processes and plan for any capability gaps otherwise decisions will be reactive, resulting in distress purchases which can prove costly. Being consistent with how you deal with all workers whatever their status is important. Properly inducting and communicating a clear strategy to flexible workers is essential. 

Quality and regular communication with all staff ensures remote workers do not feel isolated. Similarly, implementing clear role tasks and accountabilities are vital so others do not feel put upon by part-time workers.

To allow this approach it is essential to have an excellent case management system and IT equipment and support.

How are firms meeting the challenges created by dealing with individuals with non-traditional roles or career pathways?

BB: An important part of meeting this challenge is through career management systems and structures. We have developed a sophisticated and robust system for measuring competency and skills development. We have career development frameworks for all roles and at all levels and we work closely with our partners to ensure these criteria are applied consistently. This helps guard against any unconscious bias towards the need for presenteeism. 

We have also made use of internal employee network groups and working parties. These provide support and knowledge-sharing for individuals while helping the wider business to understand the potential issues and to identify possible solutions to any perceived barriers. Nonetheless, we recognise there is still work to be done in this area as it is important to get right. We have recently set up a new cross-firm project board to look at flexible working and how we might make further improvements.

Joanna Worby
Joanna Worby

JW: More than ever individuals need to understand their role in a firm and how they fit into its strategic vision if they are to feel part of it. The younger generation want more Autonomy and to know how they can improve their existing skill set, achieve a higher reward and so on, even if this is not achieved by following a traditional career path.

Career planning is still important and everyone should have clear career goals. Firms should plan to: provide regular constructive feedback and praise; measure achievement against the firm’s objectives and not just financial performance; improve communications; and create a supportive, respectful environment that accommodates different approaches and rewards contributions.

SH: Firms need to adopt an inclusive leadership approach by developing a good business case around non-traditional roles and careers. Line managers also need to understand the business proposition and be supported in developing appropriate management skills for staff in these roles. 

Open and honest conversations should take place on a regular basis with individuals who move into non-traditional roles to ensure they have a clear picture of what is expected and how the arrangement will work in practice.

MG: Increasingly, firms are offering alternative roles, such as legal director, and routes to partnership appreciating that there is not a standard career path and that in some cases people may have taken time out of their career or worked less intensively for periods in order to accommodate their personal circumstances.

What are the most effective ways of incentivising a flexible workforce and how does this differ from the traditional legal career remuneration structure?

MG: The move away from PQE in relation to reward and promotion means individuals can be assessed purely on their skills and capability, rather than their level of experience. As such, this more flexible approach – which many firms have adopted – fits much better with flexible resourcing models that firms are now utilising. 

Those we engage on a flexible basis can benefit from regular training sessions run by the firm, which they may otherwise miss out on or have to pay for themselves. With long-term, flexible relationships they can build their skills and the firm benefits too. This is because interim lawyers often have extensive networks, which they need in order to secure a future pipeline of work. This can lead to referrals of work into the firm or other interim lawyers joining us. 

Sasha Hardman
Sasha Hardman

SH: The ability to work part time, job share or work remotely is a highly valued option and is, in itself, an incentive – demonstrated by the fact that individuals with different working arrangements tend to stay far longer than might otherwise be expected. A new organisation might not offer the same flexibility and support and the working relationships and trust need to be built from scratch. 

It is crucial that work allocation is fair and delivers interesting work. A flexible workforce would still form part of the traditional legal career remuneration structure and there is no reason for any difference in approach apart from the obvious pro-rating based on the work pattern.

JW: The traditional model is status-driven and often goes hand in hand with financial reward. Flexible workers are often seeking a better quality of life and may not be so status driven. Any reward system has to be multifaceted, comprising both financial and non-financial elements. Financial rewards should be based on skills, productivity, output and an individual’s contribution to meeting the firm’s overall objectives. Non-financial benefits may be of higher importance for some and include recognition, opportunities to develop new skills or career directions and a range of intrinsic issues such as job satisfaction, motivation and attachment to or engagement with the organisation. 

BB: Allowing individuals to have more control over how and where they work strengthens the bonds with the firm. To misquote, if an individual enjoys their job (and the way they can do it), they will not feel like they are really working and engagement and productivity will invariably be better. For some, this flexibility can (almost) be reward enough in itself. For most, the career management systems help determine what the appropriate (traditional) rewards should be.

What are the most effective ways of incentivising a remote workforce?

BB: Individuals usually want to be part of the firm and valued for what they do. That is no different from most people, but it requires a little more effort on both sides to achieve this where remote working occurs.

JW: It is important to show trust and provide regular constructive feedback. It does seem regional firms are more comfortable offering workplace flexibility than their City counterparts. We employ a number of ex-City lawyers who can compare their experience.

Regular points of contact need to be scheduled so remote workers do not feel isolated and it is beneficial to have an understanding of team memebers’ contributions. 

SH: A remote workforce needs to feel part of the community of the firm and team and therefore a ‘one-team’ approach should be encouraged. Those who work remotely need regular interaction with the team through all forms of communication. Human contact on a regular basis is key, so thought needs to be given to how best to achieve this. 

MG: It is important to make remote workers feel part of the team. Technology can assist, allowing people to keep in virtual contact. It is also helpful if team members are able to get together in person from time to time. Team training and events are critical to incentivising team members.

Maintaining adequate supervision is important, not only to ensure quality, but also to ensure that the individual is developing and being given the same opportunities as colleagues who are based in the office. Where necessary, managers need to be given the skills to manage flexible, and particularly remote, teams successfully. 

How do you ensure a ‘one-team’ approach while working with virtual teams across numerous locations?

SH: The management teams are key. They need to be inclusive and ensure communication is clear, regular and consistent for all team members. Technology needs to be utilised as much as possible to benefit from video conferencing and Skype/Lync technology, but still with an element of face-to-face meetings where practicable. 

Ashurst ran specific training around managing virtual teams as an integral part of the planning for the new office opening in Glasgow. This applied to those who were managing up (who have a manager in a different location) as well as to those managing a team remotely.

BB: Technology plays a crucial role in maintaining an inclusive approach. Email, conference calling, face-to-face video calling, live document sharing, auto-forwarding of calls, internal messaging systems and team and firm intranet pages allow part-time or remote workers to engage.

There are occasions when team members will be asked to be flexible, for example to attend the office for team/key business meetings, but individuals are usually more than willing to do this. Attitude is critical – flexibility of mind and the existence of trust can strengthen teamwork for individuals and other team members alike.