Law firms are becoming increasingly receptive to flexible working practices, addressing issues such as improving work/life balance for staff, the potential to reduce overheads in the face of escalating rental costs, and responding to challenges around global teams working in different time zones.

Many firms already have some degree of flexible-working policy in place. But momentum is growing for further endeavours in this respect, as the number of stories in The Lawyer in recent weeks show. Clifford Chance has announced it will encourage partners to work from home; Wedlake Bell is looking at how to integrate agile working; and Herbert Smith Freehills will implement agile working across its London-based practice groups following a successful three-month trial where a number of partners and fee-earners could work from home one day a week.

Three-quarters of those who took part in Herbert Smith Freehills’ trial said that agile working improved productivity. The initiative is part of the firm’s ‘Working Smarter’ concept, launched in 2012, which the firm says has brought greater work/life balance to its staff, improved efficiency, and helps in attracting and retaining talent.

Hot-desking is also proving more popular as part of flexible working strategies. DAC Beachcroft recently moved into new offices in Leeds, adopting hot-desking on the basis that desks are unoccupied for 40% of the time. The firm notes that the subsequent savings in property costs can be reinvested in its people, and that feedback has been positive with staff saying that it is increasing productivity and collaboration. Foot Anstey has also launched a ‘warm-desking’ pilot. Warm-desking differs slightly in that while employees do not have assigned desks they do have more permanent facilities for each individual.

Influential research by Cranfield University and the charity Working Families found that flexible workers have higher levels of organisational commitment, possibly in gratitude for being given more control over their working patterns, and the majority of employees reported that flexible working had a positive effect in reducing stress levels.

Overcoming the stumbling blocks

But for all its potential advantages, there are pitfalls that firms need to be mindful of. Employees who can’t work flexibly can feel resentful of colleagues who can. And flexible workers, meanwhile, can feel that they are perceived as not as committed. Hot-desking also needs to be carefully considered. People can feel territorial over their own space, and time can be wasted each day in a scrabble for desks, sockets and passwords.

Proper implementation is everything. IT obviously needs to be up to the job, but the greater issue is one of culture. There needs to be reassurance that those who work flexibly won’t be damaging their career progression, or their relationship with colleagues, by doing so. As is so often the case, leading by example is extremely powerful.

Fairness is vital too. As the Cranfield research noted, greater cultural resistance was found in organisations where the actual take up of flexible working was dominated by certain types of employee, such as parents of young children. But given that carers are more likely to need flexible working arrangements this is a tough call for managers.

Compounding the issue is that some roles can be done effectively without being in the office every day, others less so. Breaking down a role into tasks could be a way forward: while a certain role may not be obviously suited to agile working, it is possible that not every task done within that role needs to be carried out in an office.

And the employee, too, needs to play a part if flexible working is to be successful – such as being honest about whether their home working environment is up to the task, and ensuring that flexible working will truly deliver work/life balance without one overwhelming the other: home working is not about sitting around in your pyjamas with endless cups of tea, but neither is it sitting up with your BlackBerry in bed until the small hours.

All the evidence suggests that flexible working is here to stay. The key challenge in future months and years will be finding the right balance to ensure it delivers benefits for all.

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