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Flexible Working: Survival of the fittest

Legal recruiter, Fiona Severs, looks at why flexible working is here to stay and ways that organisations can make it successful

Employers suffered in the recession. Pay and recruitment freezes were common and many organisations adopted more flexible working practices with staff signing up for reduced hours, extended unpaid leave or less pay in order to save their jobs – if they were lucky.

According to Manpower, one of the world’s biggest staffing agencies, the flexible work practices that emerged during the recession are set to stay long after the economy recovers. Mark Cahill, managing director of Manpower UK says: ‘The private sector has got used to getting a greater return from their workers and they will be reluctant to return to pre-recession conditions when the downturn is over. Flexible engagement has worked fantastically well, so has rewarding output rather than attendance.’

This increasingly positive attitude towards flexible working is easy to understand in the current economic climate. In the short term, organisations with a flexible recruitment strategy are more agile and better able to adapt to rapid changes in market conditions, with less of the risk and commitment associated with hiring permanent staff in an unpredictable market. Better still, employers can ‘buy-in’ skills and experience missing from their existing team. If the market recovers, the employee can be employed permanently - ready to hit the ground running having already been integrated into the business – the ultimate ‘try before you buy’ and much less risky than taking on a previously unknown employee.

In addition, fixed term contracts enable employers to be less rigid in the application of their usual recruitment criteria. The temporary nature of the contract allows organisations to employ individuals with a different background, experience or skill set from those usually required from candidates thereby expanding the diversity and experience of the team as a whole – often with very positive results.

A flexible and diverse workforce brings rewards in the longer term too. Studies repeatedly indicate that businesses that maximise flexible working have competitive advantages. BT reports a 97% retention rate for returning mothers compared to a national average of 47% and puts this down largely to their approach to flexible working. BT have pioneered home-working and has 17% of its staff working from home. This has saved BT 60m per annum in property costs, reduced absenteeism by 20% and seen a startling increase in productivity with home workers creating 30% more output than their office based colleagues.

To succeed, organisations must compete to recruit from a diminishing pool of talent and fight to hang on to the talent already within their organisation. Becoming an employer of choice by offering employees flexible work policies that allow staff to meet demands on their time from both work and home may be the key to success. Recent research conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers indicated that 47% of UK employees rated flexible working as the most prized benefit. Performance related bonuses came second gaining only 19% of the vote.

Small and medium sized law firms are particularly keen to explore ‘outside of the box’ recruitment options that can deliver solutions with a minimum of risk and a maximum of both efficiency and economy. As a result, Lexington Gray, a niche recruitment agency specialising in placing lawyers into part-time, flexible and fixed-term contract positions, has seen a marked increase in calls from firms seeking to relieve the pressure on their current team (caused by increases in demand for services and a workforce depleted by redundancies earlier in the recession) by hiring lawyers on part-time and fixed-term contracts while they assess whether this increase in work is sustained in the longer term.

Small and medium sized firms may have been the first to really embrace flexible working but when a firm as large as Linklaters announces (as it did at the end of March) that it is to sound out clients about flexible working arrangements ahead of formalising its own policy, you can be sure that the business case for adopting such flexibility has been made and that others will soon follow.

But flexible working is not all plain sailing – a CIPD report into flexible working showed that nearly half of all managers were experiencing difficulties in implementing flexible work practices.

To work well, flexible working needs to be embedded into the culture of the employer organisation and not seen as an additional policy. Work must be allocated in a way that allows all staff to contribute as effectively as possible regardless of whether they are working traditionally, flexibly or remotely. A focus on outputs and results rather than inputs, individual actions or presenteeism is necessary for flexible working practices to integrate successfully. A cultural shift of this nature requires buy-in from senior and line managers and may require training and coaching to break down some of the barriers and existing resistance to ensure success. The Executive Coaching Consultancy offers expert and practical help in this area in the form of workshop and /or coaching – their involvement can be tailored to the needs of the individual client and can make the difference between an organisation that merely has a flexible work policy and an organisation that has fully integrated and successful flexible work practices. When placing candidates into part-time or flexible roles I much prefer to work with the latter as I can be more confident that the new employee will be happy and supported in their new role - which reflects better on me!

In a knowledge based industry, like law, where the assets of the business are the skills of its workers, attracting and retaining the brightest and best of each generation is crucial to staying ahead of the competition. Additionally, in a world where only the fittest survive, organisations must become more agile and flexible in order to adapt quickly and easily to whatever the unsettled economy throws at them. Refining more traditional work practices with the introduction of flexible work practices that have been properly devised and implemented will ensure that organisations can thrive whatever the economic outlook.

By Fiona Severs, Director, Lexington Gray

Lexington Gray – the answer to your flexible legal recruitment needs.

June 2011 Newsletter Articles - quicklinks

Posted on: 15.06.2011

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