The strength in flexibility

A flexible workplace is so full of potential. It is a place where people are kicking all sorts of goals. They are happy, productive, ambitious and energised. They are full of ideas and full of enthusiasm, because they are both fuelled and supported by an easier engagement in life, in family and community. A flexible workplace is a stronger workplace.

As a professional, my work makes my life whole. My chosen profession contributes much to my sense of self and who I am. For all of us, our professional training forms how we approach most everything. While my work makes my life whole, it is not my whole life and of course this is true for all of us.  Work and life are two elements in what should be a symbiotic relationship. They are indisputably interdependent so it’s important that they co-operate and co-contribute; that a good life can help your career and that a good career will help, not hinder, your life.

If you are like me, you will have experienced people who believe that others who work flexibly aren’t dependable; that you need to be at your desk from 9am to 5pm to be making a contribution. Good staff as I’m sure you will agree are incredibly important to have and incredibly difficult to find. Feeling that you can’t rely on people who have a need to work flexibly cuts a significant number of candidates out of the picture! There are three things that are missing from workplaces where this belief endures:

  • a genuine commitment to people
  • effective leadership and management skills
  • an ability to develop and maintain strong relationships

Our business can’t exist without good people and not enabling flexible work options denies good people – both men and women – the opportunity for that symbiotic career/life relationship.

2018 stats from the ABS show that 60% of men want flexible working hours but feel as though there is a lack of support for this or for them from management. These stats also show that men who do request a flexible work arrangement are twice as likely as women to have their requests rejected. You can see the flow on effects and the opportunity cost that this could have in our communities for these men and their families. They have a reason to request flexible work so if they don’t get it, something or someone else is paying the price for that. This stat also means that it is women who continue to take the hit. Less people working flexibly to share caring duties increases the gender pay gap and compounds through to a far greater risk of poverty in older age.

More people working flexibly to support with caring duties enables women to make fewer career sacrifices and have fewer career interruptions. Putting people first is important and flexible work may not be the big leap that some people fear.

I remember when I was in a “9-to-5” office role I was only able to get focused work done before 9 or after 5 when the office had quietened down. So I was really already working “flexibly” – during the day and after hours. The hours in the middle of the day are often productive, sure, but are they are not consistently productive, 5 days each week.  Definitely not. Thanks to technology businesses run 24/7 from anywhere and everywhere. We are already working both inside and outside the office. As professionals we are always switched on to client issues and some of our best ideas come to us when we are outside the office. In the shower? At the kids soccer? We are already working flexibly.

Under the Fair Work Act, as long as employees are still receiving their minimum entitlements, you can negotiate ways to make the workplace more flexible. Employees with at least 12 months of service that also meet some other criteria have a legal right to ask for flexible working arrangements including changes to hours of work, patterns of work or location.

A genuine commitment to your people

No business can actually exist without people and as professional services providers your people are your biggest asset. Your WIP and debtors balances might be the numbers you look at, but the balance sheet doesn’t win the work – your people win the work. The balance sheet doesn’t deliver the work, and your balance sheet isn’t your succession plan. People are your number one asset, full stop. A genuine commitment to them is the first shift that needs to be made.

But, I hear you cry, we can’t ignore the financial statements! We have to consider our shareholders! Yes, that’s very true. Your business certainly needs to perform and my experience has been that it may perform even better if you can create a truly flexible work environment.

If your business doesn’t perform it’s generally not because your staff have been given a flexible work opportunity, it’s because you don’t have the right culture, or you are lacking a genuine client focus, or there are inadequate systems for collaborating, or there is a misaligned leadership or governance focus or you’re not competitive. You might not have dependable people on your team, which is a recruitment or an alignment issue, not a flexible work issue.  In fact, research by Bain & Company  shows that Net Promoter Scores are significantly higher in organisations where flexible working is widely used, particularly where it is the norm rather than the exception. It is worth noting that organisations where flexible working is available but rarely used receive a negative Net Promoter Score. You want positive advocacy from your staff. Your leadership, your culture, your systems all need to align to support what you want to achieve and this takes, and this is my second point, good management.

Effective management and leadership skills

Now, as you know, management doesn’t mean sitting at your desk looking at the numbers. Good management means truly understanding what represents value for your clients, or your potential clients, and helping your people to deliver this. It means good strategy, structure and clarity, good communication and wise decision-making. It means understanding the commercial imperative for flexible working and demonstrating a commitment to it. Most of all, truly good management is about attracting and retaining the right people and helping these people to succeed. That’s what a good manager does. And we know, typically, that while people may often use their status and remuneration as an indicator of success, this is not the same as their motivation for work.

The type of people you want on your team are those that are motivated by the type of work they’re able to do and who they do it for – their clients and their co-workers – and their ability to progress in their career. They need to be doing work that is personally important for each of them, and believe that the work that they’re doing matters. These are the people that are going to make a difference for your business but without strong relationships, and this is my third point, you’re only going to be able to go so far in keeping them on board. It’s these relationships – the relationships you have with your staff, that they have with their clients, and that they have with each other, that are key to making flexible work, work.

An ability to develop and maintain strong relationships

If you trust someone – then you take them at their word! If they say they’ll have the figures to you by 5pm, then you trust that they’ll have them to you by 5. If you’re sweating it out at 6pm because you haven’t heard from them, that’s not a flexible work issue, it’s a dependability issue, or a skills issue or a communication issue. I suggest what would overcome any of these is the trust that comes with a strong relationship. The quality of trust or communication comes down to the quality of the relationship. It is critically important that people can feel that they are trusted and that they in turn are trusting of their colleagues. It’s this environment that allows people to perform, not whether or not they’re sitting at a desk. Trust allows people to be able to ask questions, clarify things, admit mistakes, take on new or different roles and be much more effective. Trusting relationships don’t just happen on their own.  Policies, procedures, systems – all aspects of work – either work towards or away from building trust. There are many traditional business systems that undermine the quality of our relationships at work and with our clients. One of the biggest factors that can undermine this is how we traditionally measure performance.

Traditional Metrics that focus on individuals and numeric measures such as timesheets and billing have the potential to pit colleague against colleague and undermine trust.  I have witnessed unfortunate situations where professionals brag about high fees from clients rather than the client’s business success or achievement or the fact they were able to develop new skills or bring up junior staff. Performance measurement is a business system that is within the control of your business leadership and management. What gets measured, gets done. See what else you can measure that is truly aligned with meaningful relationships and your business strategy. Trusting relationships create the certainty and comfort in the workplace that humans crave and they are a much more powerful and motivating framework than prescribed office hours.

Everyone has something or someone in their life that’s very important to them. Flexible work actually matters to everyone – whether you have children or grandchildren, elderly parents; perhaps you’re an athlete with a punishing training schedule; or you volunteer for a community organisation, I suggest that whatever it is, that work is not your whole life. If you’re big enough and smart enough to do your job, chances are you’re big enough and smart enough to work flexibly, and to make it work for both you and your employer or your business.

What does flexible work look like at Moulis Legal?

At ML many of us have alter-egos. I am also a landscape architect, Shaun is the fastest 50 year-old in the world, and Dan has a passion for football. Many of us are parents (and I stress parents, not just mothers) to school-age children, some are planning weddings, some are building houses, some run online businesses and some are getting fit. We have some snow-boarding demons, one paralegal works weekends at Apple and another is a DJ. Many are studying a masters-level degree. What we all have in common is a commitment to success in these other aspects of our lives, and an equal commitment to ML, our clients and each other. Work is personally important to all our team members.

Over the past few years our successes have continued and the firm has grown. We continue to achieve the highest international law rankings and have now been appointed to the Australian Government’s new legal services panel in three services categories. This appointment is due to the calibre of lawyer that we have been able to attract to ML. Without our culture and our flexibility around hours of work and remuneration structures there is little doubt that we would not have some of these staff.

We have a flexible work policy however our most powerful enabler is our culture. Our values are excellence, innovation and relationships. Excellence means doing things as well as our resources will allow. We are energised by exceeding expectations and by being the most respected in our chosen field. We value curiosity and original thinking. We love the ‘aha!’ experience that having an open mind gives us. We value other people and we dance when we win for our clients. We value working collaboratively so that the unique skills and qualities of each one of us can support and enhance the skills and qualities of our colleagues and clients. Everyone knows what they’re there to do and everyone knows that their work matters.

This culture has come about through a mixture of both evolution and prescription i.e. it didn’t all just happen. We analysed the elements that we suspected made ML unique and strong and turned them into a formal set of values. These values now guide all our decision-making at ML. Is this decision that I am about to make going to erode trust or build it? Is it achieving excellence or is it half-arsed? And, have I thought of other options? Is there a better way? And because we actively use our values, because everyone is psychologically safe at work, flexible work works very well for us.

I suggest that the first thing you can do to start to develop a culture that enables flexible work is to consistently challenge your behaviours in the three key areas that I mentioned: people, management and relationships.

Once you get this right, the practical aspects are then reasonably easy to implement. Our IT is fully mobile. Everyone has a laptop but we also have a secure remote desktop so staff can access all our systems via a virtual desktop from any computer at any time. And we have a core period of time in the office each week so that we can hold training sessions, all-staff events or meetings and similar things with reasonable certainty. I haven’t had to deal with a situation of anyone not pulling their weight. I think the focus is on the right measure, which is doing the very best for our clients. I do not measure individual stats. The data is there if we ever need it to inform a management decision, but I am steadfastly determined to not use this as a single measure of individual performance. Other quantitative measures that we use include client survey results, number of new clients, number of repeat instructions, number of marketing or business development activities as well as some longer-term, bigger picture strategy measures. Never individual utilisation, billings or recovery.

Yes, there was some resistance to the concept of flexible work at the beginning, which was a few years ago now – however the objections were based on untested assumptions around what a successful law firm should look like and what staff should want.  The objections have disappeared and there is no evidence of any negative impact on productivity, team commitment or work quality. In fact, quite the contrary. The only impact has been positive.

Before I finish up I’d like to share with you a very short video of former Talking Heads front man, David Byrne, who’s championing a new initiative that I came across recently:

I know that things can seem pretty hopeless these days. I often feel that way too.

So, a little way back I started looking for reasons to be cheerful and believe it or not I found some. I found a lot actually.

And I had an idea. What if we started a project and brought some of those reasons to be cheerful into sharper focus. We looked at things that were working and our team told us stories to understand those things better. Things that might be copied, replicated, scaled up, spread around. That’s what this project is about. We’re documenting stories of solutions. Not just good ideas but real positive change that’s being made by people and communities all over the world. This is a crazy time and you might be thinking that focusing on good stuff is a just a distraction but I disagree. I think it’s crucial to keep us from giving up. Yes it’s a tonic but it’s also energising. It gets us engaged and brings us together. It might also be a more accurate picture of the world than what we’re usually shown. These aren’t stories about how we wish things were, these are stories about how they are, right now. I feel better already.

David talks about how positive change is needed, about how it starts small and that if something is working well, we should share it. Flexible work is working and it is becoming how things are. If you don’t already have flexible workplace arrangements, dig a little with a curious mind and you’ll find that the way things are in your office might not be the way they could be. You can have a flexible workplace and your staff will be able to contribute to your business as well as their families and their communities, which is a very good reason to be cheerful.

This article is a modified transcript of a speech given to the Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors on 27 September 2019.

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Suzanne Moulis