Flexible working makes sense for both employers and employees. Perhaps that’s why organisations across the political spectrum, from the CBI to the TUC, support it. So do we.
The majority of our employees work flexibly, as do most of our equity partners. We enjoy a high staff retention rate and have more women than men at both associate and partner levels.
The business case for flexible working is clear. Law firms increasingly need to operate outside 9-5 weekday hours, whether or not they are dealing with clients abroad. As a founder partner of QualitySolicitors, we agreed that Saturday opening would be mandatory across the group. Legal advice needs to be available at convenient times; fortunately, some staff prefer weekend working.
We also need to support the career progression of female lawyers, since the burden of caring for children and elderly relatives falls disproportionally on women. In our experience the fallout of senior female lawyers can be mitigated by offering flexible working including part-time hours.
In the interests of consistency and fairness it is advisable to set boundaries and expectations in a flexible-working policy and procedure. There tends to be a high demand for early starts and finishes among support staff. It’s best to be clear from the start on core hours. The extent to which hours can be compressed (i.e. fewer, longer days) may need to be limited; similarly with the shortening of lunchtimes.
The culture of the firm is a consideration, as is health and safety. Should the statutory minimum rest breaks in the Working Time Regulations 1998 be the only restriction on working hours? For example, would allowing support staff to work for up to six hours without a break, really be productive?
Working from home is a growing sub-section of flexible working. Not coming into the office for one day per week has been successful for fee-earners who are focused and disciplined. Again it is advisable to have a home-working policy that sets out the ground rules, for example on contactability and IT security issues.
Now that the right to make a request has been extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service, flexible working will surely become more normalised. Traditional-style requests from employees with childcare and caring responsibilities will vie with those from staff who wish to pursue a hobby, achieve a better work-life balance or cut down hours as they approach retirement.
If the volume of flexible-working requests gets difficult to juggle, the temptation to flip a coin to decide who ‘wins’ should be resisted, since that approach could leave you vulnerable to claims of indirect discrimination. Remember too, that the Equality Act 2010 applies not only to employees but also to workers and self-employed partners who do not have the right to request flexible working. Their right not to be unlawfully discriminated against, needs to be taken into account when processing flexible-working requests.
Thankfully the reason for a statutory request need not be considered and indeed cannot form any part of a refusal: only the eight ‘business reasons’ set out in the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 are permitted. It may not be possible to please everyone all of the time. However, as flexible working becomes more of an expectation, will a refusal be likely to offend and de-motivate?
All law firms should have a flexible-working policy containing a procedure for processing requests within the three-month period set out in the regulations. They will also need a creative, resourceful approach to dealing with the competing needs and expectations of the workforce.
As someone who recently moved to a four-day week, I personally think that’s a worthwhile challenge.
Julia Beasley is a partner and head of employment law at QualitySolicitors Burroughs Day