Flexible working: a win-win trend for employers and solicitors

If you’re returning to the law after a career break, you may find firms are more open to flexible working arrangements. Carolyn Morgan explains how Hill Dickinson’s early adoption of flexible working has helped the firm through the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
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According to a survey from Acas, after the country emerges from the pandemic, over half of employers expect staff to continue working from home or remotely for part of the week.

As such, many organisations are focused on defining their new ways of working.

The efficiency with which many professionals transitioned to home working – in line with government guidance on social distancing – has created a dilemma for more traditional firms, with demand for flexible working autonomy intensifying throughout the labour market.

Thanks, in large part, to a flexible working ethos, our firm actually thrived throughout the pandemic, posting increases in revenue and profit.

Below, I outline some of the options available, the benefits and how the pandemic impacted our approach.

What is flexible working?

As defined by the UK government, “flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs”.

In practice, this means agreeing procedures and rules regarding working hours, start times, end times and locations on an individual basis, often deferring to the wider needs of employees.

As a formal arrangement, flexible working originated in 1960s Germany, with the UK, US and Canada adopting elements of the system from the 1970s onwards

The advance of modern technology and internet capabilities has gradually increased instances of flexible working to a point where 58% of UK jobs are now considered flexible, according to a 2019 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Examples of flexible working include:

  • people working from home on a regular schedule
  • adhering to staggered shift patterns to accommodate childcare arrangements
  • diversifying working hours to allow for personal needs

Such examples are not exhaustive, and flexible working can take many forms, depending on an individual’s requirements.

Indeed, all employees who have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks have the legal right to request flexible working arrangements.

As such, flexible working is not solely reserved for parents and carers. Employers must deal with all flexible working requests in a reasonable manner, assessing the advantages and disadvantages of each proposal and issuing a decision.

What are the benefits of flexible working on workplace culture?

Employee wellbeing and culture is of the utmost importance, and with flexible working we aim to support our staff in ensuring the best for their mental and physical health.

By implementing flexible and agile working practices, we empower our employees to fulfil their roles in the ways that best suit them.

Our firm’s annual engagement survey saw 79% of employees agree with the following statement: “Working practices within my team support a healthy work-life balance, such as agile and flexible working.”

This enthusiasm for flexible working is not something that stems solely from employee demand, however.

The benefits for the organisation include:

  • increased employee retention
  • increased productivity
  • reduced absenteeism and sickness
  • attracting new recruits

We urge organisations to promote both formal and informal flexible working practices to their staff.

While straying from the traditional structure of office work may seem difficult, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

Pioneering flexible working pre-pandemic

As a firm, we have been committed to innovative working models for many years, blazing a trail regarding office attendance, technological investment and forward-thinking collaboration.

In 2019, we recognised noticeable shifts in working habits and created a roadmap to capitalise on such operating efficiencies.

Investing heavily in technology and digital infrastructure – including portable laptops for all employees and stronger internal communication platforms – we outlined a vision for long-term sustainability that ultimately helped in our pandemic preparedness.

We have since seen continued increases in flexible working, reinforcing our commitment in this area.

In 2019, for instance, 18% of our people worked on a formally flexible basis. By January 2020, before the pandemic emerged, that figure rose to 20.5%.

In 2020, we were named as the UK’s best employer for flexible working in the Working Families Best Practice Awards, beating off competition from the Civil Service, Pitney Bowes, the Royal Air Force and Zurich Insurance. In 2021, we were once again shortlisted for this award.

Read more on what flexible working looks like at Hill Dickinson

Impact of COVID-19

Of course, the numbers above have been impacted considerably by the COVID-19 pandemic, with remote working becoming a temporary legal requirement – more than simply an organisational aspiration – in many countries.

The firm’s commitment to flexible working underpinned our pandemic preparedness, allowing an effective pivot to hybrid operating practices that guaranteed business continuity.

Peter Jackson, the firm’s chief executive officer, led our ‘people first’ strategy throughout the pandemic. For example, we shared regular video messages to employees, to boost morale and underscore the firm’s commitment to innovative working.

“Be flexible with your workloads”, Peter said in one such video message.

“If there isn't an immediate deadline, then adjust that workload so that you can look after your children. You can help your relatives who might be shielding or isolating. And take some time for yourself. Get some fresh air. Watch Netflix. Whatever it is that keeps you sane, please do it.”

While it can be easy to broadcast sentiments such as openness, approachability and a realistic approach to how people operate, consistently delivering on these is quite another challenge.

Now, in the autumn of 2021, the upward trend of formal arrangements for flexible working is still in evidence, while 95% of our people work informally on a flexible basis, too.

Flexible working is now entrenched in our organisational culture, and promoted and implemented throughout the business.

With this in mind, we anticipate these figures will increase as we continue to focus on creating an environment that encourages smart working and ensure line managers are trained to support and manage flexible working arrangements.