In this case study Simmons & Simmons describes its approach to flexible working.
Taking a more balanced approach to the working week
International law firm Simmons & Simmons has hard-headed business reasons for encouraging take up of flexible working. "We want the best people working for us and one way of attracting and retaining those people is to ensure that they have the right balance - one that works for them - between home and work," says Julian Taylor, a partner in the firm's employment law department.
Another objective is to improve the gender balance at senior levels of the organisation. Currently, 19 of the 120 partners in the firm's London office are women, compared to around half of the 344 other lawyers. Offering individuals opportunities to develop their careers, while following non-traditional working patterns is seen as a way of encouraging more women to aim for the top.
But despite being part of the firm's strategy for attracting and retaining female talent, flexible working is available to all employees, not just working mothers. "We've been very clear that this should be available to men, as well as women and for people who don't have children," says Taylor, who himself works a four and a half day week, including one morning a week of working from home.
Creating the right culture
The law firm has had a flexible working policy for more than a decade. But as Taylor points out, having a policy that says people can work flexibly does not necessarily mean they feel comfortable about asking for changes to their working patterns. So, over the last few years the firm has focused on creating a culture where individuals feel confident that flexible working requests will be viewed positively and not damage their careers. That has involved asking all departments to think about how they promote and support flexible working.
Getting senior management buy in
Top level support for flexible working has helped to create an environment where people do not feel that they have to be in the office five days a week.
To demonstrate this support, a steering committee made up of senior people has been set up which meets monthly to monitor progress on flexible working and gender balance. It reports back to the firm's managing partner. According to Taylor, who chairs the committee, this ensures that flexible working is not just talked about but is something that is actually happening throughout the organisation.
The firm has also listened to what staff have to say about flexible working and gender balance, holding focus groups for male and female employees in its London office. To drive home the message about senior management commitment to flexible working, these meetings were led by two female partners, one of whom has a contractual flexible working arrangement.
Many organisations offer staff a set menu of flexible working options, such as part-time working, flexitime, job-sharing, annual hours or remote working. Simmons & Simmons has chosen not to produce this type of list. Instead, it encourages people to propose working patterns that meet their own needs and then tries to accommodate these proposals.
However, it is easier to accommodate some proposals than others, since different roles lend themselves to different types of flexibility. "There's a big distinction between flexibility in terms of the hours you do and flexibility in terms of where you do those hours," says Taylor.
"There are some roles where it might be difficult to accommodate a part-time arrangement but much easier, for example, to accommodate someone working one day a week from home."
But he stresses that there are no jobs that could never be done on a part-time basis. A lawyer working on a big transaction, for example, may need to put in a five-day week for a period of time, but over the course of a year would be able to work just 80 per cent of the time.
Sharing good practice
The law firm has created a series of case studies of people in different roles with a variety of flexible working arrangements, and uses its intranet site to share these examples of good practice. The case studies feature men and women who have chosen to work flexibly for reasons ranging from childcare responsibilities to wanting to pursue leisure activities such as horse riding.
Making formal requests
The firm's formal procedure for making flexible working requests mirrors the statutory procedure which preceded the extension of 'the right to request' in June 2014. The main difference is that the firm has allowed all employees with at least 26 weeks of continuous employment to apply to work flexibly - not just parents or carers - so applications do not need to state the employee has these responsibilities.
The procedure states that any request must:
- be made in writing
- describe the proposed flexible working pattern
- give a proposed start date
- explain the likely effect of the new working pattern on the business and how this could be dealt with
- state if and when the employee has made a previous application.
Once the firm has received a request, it has to:
- invite the employee to a meeting within 28 days to discuss the request
- make a decision within 14 days and inform the employee of it
- provide the employee with a new contract of employment, if the request has been approved
- allow employees to appeal to a manager who is not their own line manager, if the request to work flexibly has been turned down.
When Simmons & Simmons spoke to HR-inform in January 2014, it had yet to decide whether to simplify these arrangements in line with the forthcoming changes to the statutory procedure under the Children and Families Act 2014 (see below).
Making informal requests
In addition to requests for formal changes to individuals' working patterns, the firm receives many informal requests for ad hoc flexible working arrangements. The process followed in these cases tends to be more fluid, with individuals first discussing their requests in person with their line managers. Several conversations then usually take place to agree much of what would have been set out in a formal, written agreement.
Flexible working has increased steadily at Simmons & Simmons over the last few years, with a recent survey showing that 50 per cent of the people working for the firm now have flexible arrangements. This figure includes those who work flexibly only occasionally, as well as those with formal flexible working arrangements.
Technology has encouraged take up of these arrangements by making it easier for people to work away from the office. The firm's IT systems allow for all employees to work remotely and all employees also have access to 24-hour IT support.
The steps that Simmons & Simmons has taken to encourage take up of flexible working have been recognised externally. The firm won the title 'RBS Best for flexible working' in the 2013 'Top employers for working families' awards. It was also named one of the Times newspaper's 'Top 50 employers for women' in 2013.
These accolades have boosted the firm's reputation for being genuinely committed to helping staff work flexibly and that, in turn, seems to be helping it attract talented individuals. "We know of people who have applied to us because they want to work flexibly and see us as providing a positive environment in that sense," says Taylor.
The firm does not currently capture data about the retention of staff who work flexibly, but is planning to look into this in the coming year.
Taylor admits that despite all the progress that has been made to date, flexible working is more established in some parts of the organisation than in others. "I'm sure that we've still got progress to make and we are not complacent," he says. "But I certainly think people are more confident now about asking to work flexibly than they would have been a few years ago."
Flexible working: how the law is changing
Employees in the UK do not have the right to work flexibly, but some employees have had the right to request flexible working since April 2003. This was originally confined to parents with a child under six or those with a disabled child under the age of 18, but was extended in 2007 to carers of certain categories of adults and in 2009 to parents of children under 17.
The following changes came into force on 30 June 2014:
- the right to request flexible working will be extended to all employees with at least 26 weeks' continuous employment
- the current statutory 'right to request' procedure will be replaced with a duty on employers to consider all requests in a 'reasonable' manner
- the employer will have to notify the employee of its decision within three months of the application unless a longer period is agreed
- employees will still be restricted to one request in any 12-month period
- micro businesses will not be exempt.
All legal information in this case study is correct at the date of publication. For the most up to date law in this area, click on the ‘employment law information’ link in the Further information section below.