Of all the many changes to legal working life in the last 20 years one of the most fundamental is the rise in remote working. Whilst the law is often perceived as a conservative profession, behind the scenes it has often been an early adopter of technology, particularly in Personal Injury where case management systems have been widespread for many years. Attitudes to flexible working have often been progressive – in our firm, long before internet access, it was customary to load up the car with a box of files and a portable Dictaphone and spend a day at home to complete tasks requiring uninterrupted concentration and a decent supply of snacks.
These days remote access is available for our fee-earners should they want it. We have several workers, like me, who work from home on set days per week and some who work from home on an ad hoc basis when it suits them. In a time when the margins on PI work are being squeezed, there are monetary and well-being benefits to both staff and employers who embrace flexible working. It is an effective way for firms to reduce the cost of commuting, in both time and money, resulting in happier, richer staff. Firms can make more efficient use of office space if staff can “hot desk”, and there is no loss of productivity when transport problems arise. Personally speaking, swapping three hours of daily misery on Southern Rail with a leisurely shuffle between bedroom and study improves my mood immeasurably and restores the work/life balance.
There are downsides, of course and remote working is not appropriate for all employees. Reception and administrative staff need to be in the office, and trainees benefit from interaction with experienced colleagues. It can be isolating working from home and I wouldn’t want to do it full time. Conversely, for those working in the office it can be depressing if the place is deserted. There is also a real value to building office camaraderie and cooperation and it can be difficult to manage effectively without regular face to face meetings. That said, these challenges can be overcome by having a structured timetable which provides for regular team/staff meetings and core days when all staff are expected to be in the office.
I suspect the real obstacle to implementing flexible working is often a fear by management that staff “working” at home are not really working at all. This attitude makes no sense on a number of levels. Firstly, people are quite capable of skiving when they are in the office – bustling around the office with a furrowed brow, clutching a sheaf of papers is just as effective in wasting half an hour as decamping to the sofa to watch Escape to the Country with a cuppa! Secondly, why on earth would anyone employ someone they don’t trust to do the job? Employees should be trusted to manage their time in order to complete tasks and meet targets, and they know that there will be consequences if they do not. Getting the balance right can be difficult, but giving staff a degree of autonomy and flexibility in the way they work can bring rewards for both employer and employee.
Fiona Scurlock, author of ‘Home Sweet Home’, is a PI Solicitor at Gray Hooper Holt LLP, Redhill and MASS Regional Co-ordinator for the South East.