Your Stories: Working Flexibly

Research, including the National Attrition and Reengagement Study (NARS) report, has identified that lack of flexibility in working arrangements may inhibit the progress, retention, and/or re-engagement of employees, in particular female employees.

As part of WLA ACT’s response to that research, in September 2015, we circulated our policy statement on flexible working arrangements and our model flexible working arrangements human resources policy for consideration of our members.

We also indicated our intention to start collecting stories of people who are working flexibly in the legal industry, or who employ those who are. A great deal can be learned from one another’s experiences and we see the collation of these stories as an important and practical supplementary resource in this area.

Juliette Ford

Farrar Gesini Dunn

Juliette was profiled for our September 2016 newsletter. 

FGD is often recognised for its innovative workplace practices. What sort of flexible work arrangements do you have in place?

Juliette: Well firstly, we have departed from the traditional office space that most firms operate in. This was because we decided that the way we work had outgrown the traditional office environment. Those structures created hard barriers. Instead, we have what would broadly be described as an ‘activity based workspace’.

However, within that, we recognise that our people have different styles of working and different needs throughout the day, so we have created separate spaces within the office plan to cater for these. For example, some areas are reserved for quiet work, some for telephone calls, and so on. This helps to manage both the introverts and extroverts.

It’s important to be ok with having kids come into the office where our people need that to juggle their commitments. We have areas in our office where kids can come in and watch TV or play games. This creates added work efficiency. And as a family law firm, our clients should feel comfortable about bringing their kids to our office.

Moving to an activity based work environment meant we also had to move towards a ‘paperless or less paper’ office which is fundamental to liberating staff from the physical impediments of working flexibly. Admittedly – going paperless was a big change for some of us (me included!) but once we made the decision, we haven’t looked back. It is about changing the way you think and appreciating that just because things have always been done a certain way doesn’t mean they have to continue to be done that way.

Aside from the physical environment, FGD has always encouraged conversations of flexibility and change, so we have built a platform where there is no fear about exploring something ‘different’. Ann Northcote, one of my fellow directors recently analysed who was in the office and when and the jigsaw puzzle of different hours and days was amazing. It certainly has become ‘our norm’.

We don’t measure performance by attendance in the office. We obviously look at the typical financial measures but also the other contributions of each person. We have a work from home policy and we don’t have specific start and finish times. This applies across the board - to partners, lawyers and PAs. Everyone can work from home, everyone has access to a laptop.

My practice and the practice of many in our office is designed so that there are two lawyers assigned to each matter. This is ‘businesswise’ as it creates a real ability to be flexible and to ensure that clients have access to a seamless experience. It also has a strong business case as it opens up time for senior lawyers to nurture other relationships and gives junior lawyers more autonomy and experience.

As a principal of a firm which offers flexible work arrangements, what have your experiences been in having flexible work arrangements as part of the firm culture?

Juliette: Our strategic plan makes it clear that women are valued - “Work environment which supports our lives and values women”– we chose to make this point expressly as it is an important ‘signal’ of our culture. It often generates some discussion which is why it is there – to bring to the foreground the question of what managing a professional career looks like for men and women in our office going forward. It is a positive statement of inclusivity.

Something we are mindful of is ensuring that our flexible work culture is legitimate, authentic and reasonable. It can’t be ‘optically’ flexible but not ‘practically’ flexible. For example, flexible work arrangements need to be managed properly so staff aren’t taking a few hours off in the afternoon and then working until midnight every day because their budget has not been adjusted. This has been something that we have been carefully managing.

What our flexible workplace culture has enabled us to do is to embrace the ‘whole’ person – that is, when we employ someone, we don’t just employ his or her brain isolated from the other aspects of life which make that person dynamic and interesting and someone we want to employ and represent FGD. A culture which employs the ‘whole person’ means that staff will want to stay, be enthusiastic about their work and therefore do their best work. 

There is a significant cost in losing staff and reemploying. Staff take with them cultural knowledge and experience, not just legal experience. And it can take a long time to build that up in a newly hired lawyer. We have had around 5-6 women return to work after taking time off for family arrangements including fellow Directors. Flexibility should not just be the domain of employees – but also the owners. This is a measure of our success.

What advice and points would you have for partners / directors / principals wondering how to embrace flexible work arrangements and use them to benefit their firms?

Juliette: In the legal profession there is always going to be some pioneers in this area and those who are open to change. On the other hand, there will be many people more comfortable with a traditional approach. But in my experience, it is critical for people to be open to thinking about things differently and trying out new ideas. To be effective as a culture, flexibility must be seen to be across the firm - it can’t be reserved for one or two partners. That isn’t a culture.

Particularly for small to medium firms, I would ask them this question: “What is your succession plan?” Unless you have one, your values and business will disappear. The bottom line is that you need to create an environment where your lawyers want to be in business with you in the future. Aim to understand what is going to work for them, and then set up those arrangements. And turn your mind to it 10-15 years in advance, not a year before you’re ready to move on.

Partners need to look at ownership differently and more laterally. A workplace culture that supports the whole person fosters loyalty, trust, commitment and longevity. There is your succession plan.

Kim Back

Maurice Blackburn

Kim was profiled for our newsletter in March 2016.

Why do you view flexible working arrangements as important?

It is unsurprising that with the increase in female graduates there has been a push for more flexible working arrangements within the legal sector. We no longer define ourselves or our success by our professional achievements alone, but by being able to succeed and enjoy many facets of life including having a family, travelling, hobbies and the like. Innovative employers recognise that they need to provide genuine flexible working arrangements in order to attract and retain staff or risk being left behind.

What have your flexible working experiences been, and how important has this been in being available for your family and career?

I am a mum of two young boys and have been lucky enough to have the support of my employer. With my first son, I was able to take 12 months leave with the assistance of 16 weeks paid parental leave. When I returned to work I was able to negotiate a flexible working arrangement which included working 4 days per week. I was then able to take a further 8 months paid parental leave with my second son. The flexibility offered by my employer has really enabled me to continue to grow professionally as well as enjoy a family.

How would you like to see the legal industry be more accommodating for practitioners with families and caring responsibilities?

The flexibility which has been offered to me from my employer has enabled me to continue to contribute to the community as a lawyer, something which I am passionate about. It would be ideal to see the conditions which I have enjoyed become standard across all firms and departments, both for men and women.

In this day and age there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to family and caring responsibilities. Caring roles may be by the mother, father or another family member or friend. The ideal would be for these roles to be recognised and accepted, particularly for fathers. I am optimistic that we will continue to see a shift in our societies view on this in the coming years.

Heidi Yates

Head of General Practice, Legal Aid ACT


First – to your own experience as someone who has worked flexibly: what did that look like and why?

Heidi: I began working part-time when I returned from parental leave. Initially I worked 2 days per week. I have continued to work part-time – although with an increase in days - for the past 5 years. In my current role, I work a 9 day fortnight.

How did you find returning to work for 2 days per week?

Heidi: Two days first up was great - just the right amount for me at the time. It was very comforting not to be absent from my child for too long in that initial period.

How was that managed - were you performing the same work as before parental leave?

Heidi: No – I arranged with my manager to shift for this period to more ‘frontline’ work which was able to be done in relatively defined hours. This enabled me to avoid the more unpredictable work that can be difficult to manage with primary carer responsibilities. This shift was therefore important from a practical point of view, but it also had a broader relevance. It meant that I was not trying to conform to my ‘old’ working self (in less than half the hours!) – that comparison would not have been productive and would likely have led to frustration. Having a largely new set of defined responsibilities was an important part of why the arrangement worked for me.

And what other elements do you think contributed to the success of your arrangement?

Heidi: There were a number of key things. Communication and planning were undoubtedly the main ones – and this began early on. Before I went on parental leave, I had a plan with my manager for how communication was to occur over that period – so there was a clear understanding of how I was going to stay ‘engaged’. Another important part of this plan was a discussion around leave ‘combinations’ – how I could draw upon different forms of leave to meet my needs over this period. Having a clear plan for the leave period helped it to go smoothly which in turn contributed to a smooth return to work.

And once back at work?

Heidi: The importance of communication and planning continued. For example, having a manager who was fully aware of my working days and who planned team events to coincide with my working days (as far as possible) was very important. A manager who constantly ‘forgets’ that a staff member doesn’t work on a particular day can be quite frustrating and also alienating that for that staff member. I know I’ve been guilty of this at times as a manager.

Constantly forgetting the work arrangement would seem to perpetuate the notion that the person is departing from the ‘norm’; is part of the ‘other’ or even the ‘outer’… And the person is forced to keep explaining (or justifying?) themselves.

Heidi: Yes, it about engagement and inclusion. On that point, it was also important that my manager didn’t automatically exclude me from events occurring on my non-working days and instead gave me the option to be involved if I wanted to and could arrange a way to get there.

In what other ways was communication and planning important?

Heidi: Another example was the ‘drill’ that I agreed with my manager to follow in the event that my child was sick – when and how to let my manager know that I wouldn’t be able to come to work. On this issue, it was helpful that my manager was aware of my arrangements at home and so understood the fact that if my child was sick, the responsibility would fall to me to be at home. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing with their boss details about their ‘juggling’ arrangements at home, but it can make communication on both sides easier.

Yes! Sick children can be stressful….

Heidi: Absolutely. And on the issue of sick children, another key element that helped my arrangement was empathy on my manager’s part. The lack of control that we experience when our children are sick - combined with the distress of our children being sick – is very difficult. Some empathy around that from our managers can make all the difference – even if it’s fake!

What were the benefits of working flexibly?

Heidi: For me, it made the transition back to work after having a child much easier and one that I felt personally comfortable with. It enabled me to remain engaged in my career alongside my new role as a parent. I felt valued and respected in my role as both worker and parent. I was grateful for my arrangement. For my employer, I have no doubt that my gratitude translated into considerable loyalty and hard work on my part – I gave true ‘value for money’! It’s true what they say about employers being able to get a lot more out of their part-time employees.

What would have happened if you hadn’t been able to access flexible working arrangements?

Heidi: Honestly, I would have changed profession. It’s that simple.

Now let’s talk about your experience as a manager of flexible workers. Does Legal Aid ACT support flexible working arrangements?

Heidi: It does – flexibility is an option we try to offer to our staff, where operational requirements allow. In the parental leave space, we have individual negotiations with each employee to come up with the right arrangement, we typically expect employees to take their full entitlement to parental leave and perhaps to seek extensions. We also expect that these employees will make part-time work requests. However, flexibility is not limited to those with family responsibilities – we also have staff working flexibly to manage other important issues in their lives.

WLA: And how do you find managing these arrangements?

Heidi: I’ll be blunt – it is incredibly frustrating at times. It is not frustrating that people work flexibly, but rather that logistics don’t always work smoothly. Obviously there are case load logistics in a litigation practice. And like anywhere, there are financial logistics too (particularly in managing periods of parental leave). I’m conscious that I come into this with a mindset of being absolutely committed to flexible arrangements working, so it is alarming to think how it must go for managers who don’t approach it with such a mindset….

Indeed it is! What are some things that your employees do which assist their flexible arrangements to work?

Heidi: Again, I come back to communication and planning. To take the example I gave earlier in my own experience as a flexible worker, when a staff member’s child is sick, prompt and predictable lines of communication are the key. I have a staff member who is particularly great at this – for example, she will give me a ‘heads up’ if her child seems a bit under the weather when she collects her from care in the afternoon – so I’m already aware at 5pm that this staff member might not be in the next day. And I’ll know to look out for a message from her early the next morning as she’ll confirm either way. Forewarned is forearmed!

Proactive communication would certainly help with the logistics you referred to.

Heidi: Yes. Another example of helpful communication and planning is when staff members think ahead and plan for coverage when they won’t be in, rather than dropping matters to me at the last minute to sort out. As the manager, I am ultimately responsible for overseeing coverage but my job is made so much easier when a staff member can come to me with a coverage plan and someone already lined up. That sort of proactive planning is very helpful for managing caseloads in a litigation practice.

Aside from the helpful things that your manager did to help facilitate your flexible working arrangement that you discussed earlier, are there any other things which you try to do as a manger to support your staff working flexibly?

Heidi: One other point I haven’t mentioned is endeavouring, wherever possible, to avoid crossing over lines to a staff member’s nonworking day. It can be very stressful trying to manage work when you’re not meant to be at work! So, for example, if I do send communications to a staff member on a non-working day, I make it explicit that I don’t want that staff member to respond to me on their day off. Acknowledging this explicitly is an important part of the broader message to staff that flexible working arrangements are to be observed and respected.

Thank you so much for sharing your story Heidi – you’ve highlighted a number of critical issues to talk about if we are to improve the take up of flexible working arrangements.

To summarise the key learnings:

  • Communication: The success of flexible working arrangements depends to a large degree on clear and frequent communication between manager and staff member.
  • Planning: The ‘logistics’ of flexible working arrangements will be more easily managed when there is a clear plan in place: for example - a plan for how leave will be taken, how communication is to take place, how a matter is to be handled in a staff member’s absence, how case loads will be distributed amongst the team.
  • Engagement and inclusion: An important aspect of the success of flexible working arrangements depends upon the extent to which the staff member feels engaged and included. A staff member who is left ‘on the outer’ will be less engaged and less effective.
  • Mindset: There is no doubt that there are challenges involved in making flexible working arrangements successful. If they are to work, managers and staff members must approach them with a commitment to making them work.