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Dana Denis-Smith

Trustee / CEO, Spark21

Quotation Marks
The blurring of lines between work and home life can cause stress and burnout, so firms need to look at ways to set boundaries

It's your attitude: making flexible working succeed

It's your attitude: making flexible working succeed


Dana Denis-Smith considers how firms must adapt to meet staff expectations in the post-pandemic world of work

The pandemic is driving major changes in the way we work. Firms such as Allen & Overy, DAC Beachcroft and Bird & Bird are announcing permanent changes to their flexible working policies.

Even those firms that would prefer a return to the office five days a week, must realise this is not an option.

A recent Thomson Reuters survey found 86 per cent of senior lawyers wanted a permanent change to their working pattern; many were willing to go elsewhere if this was not accommodated.

Those surveyed wanted to work remotely at least two days a week and see a 10 per cent reduction in hours, with a third willing to reduce their compensation in exchange.

The desire for flexible working is not new, particularly for women, for whom the ability to fit work around family can be crucial to career progression.

Back in 2019, our survey of women lawyers showed 39 per cent thought their working hours were not compatible with family life; 28 per cent had considered leaving their job due to a lack of flexibility.

In 2021, 18 years from the introduction of the right to request flexible working, will we finally see true accommodation of flexible working in the legal sector? Are firms up to the challenge of effectively introducing flexible working policies that work in practice? Are they equipped to make a success of it?

As the pandemic progressed, employers and employees alike were forced to adapt to remote working, accommodating flexible hours to allow for school and childcare closures. We had to get on with it under difficult circumstances and outcomes have often been far from ideal.

Women surveyed last year were under considerable strain during lockdowns. Of those with children, 91 per cent were taking on extra childcare and home-schooling responsibilities, with 32 per cent forced to reduce their working hours to do so.

Working from home in a pandemic is not flexible working as it should be. Flexible ways of working that are sustainable and work for everyone require a new, more considered approach.

Firms will need to show leadership and consistency in their flexible working policies. It should not be left up to individual managers and partners as to how much time their teams spend in the office – there will always be some who object. It requires a change in culture, which must be driven from the top.

Firms must look at billable hour targets. It is all very well to offer flexibility, but if lawyers are expected to hit sky high hours’ targets, then apart from cutting out a commute, those looking for a better work life balance are unlikely to see huge benefits.

Remote workers are apparently putting in more time at their desk than ever before, but working long hours at home brings its own problems. The blurring of lines between work and home life can cause stress and burnout, so firms need to look at ways to set boundaries.

As we return to offices, it is hoped there will be an attitude shift towards those who work flexibly. In 2019, 60 per cent of women lawyers surveyed believed working part-time would impact their career prospects. As firms accommodate different working patterns, will those adopting them continue to be at a disadvantage when it comes to progression?

At present, the majority of people are working remotely and we have become used to that. Once there’s a more mixed pattern of work across teams, that will change and firms will need to work hard to demonstrate fairness and to engender a team ethos that brings everyone together.

Effective communication will be key, along with ensuring they have the tools and technology needed to accommodate a more disparate workforce.

The rise of flexible working is one of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic and is a real opportunity to change the culture of the legal sector. 

The inability to fit work around family life has long been a barrier to progression for women. At Next 100 Years, we will be looking at how firms manage this transition, hearing from the firms that are making it work and seeing what we can learn from industries that are leading the way.

Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project